Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Interview: Curt Fischer, chemical engineer

Curt Fischer is a longtime chemblogosphere commenter and a chemical engineer. I thought it would be interesting to get perspective on the chemical engineering world from a recent graduate. Here is our e-mail conversation.

This e-mail exchange has been lightly edited by CJ and checked for accuracy by Dr. Fischer. 

Chemjobber: Can you talk a little about your background?

CF: My favorite teachers in high school were my Latin teacher and my chemistry teacher.  I always liked science, and so I thought to study chemistry in college.  Everyone started telling me that chemical engineering gave you more career options straight out of college.  “You’d have to go to graduate school to have after college if you majored in chemistry,” I remember hearing.  Thus I decided to become an engineer.  I wound up studying Chemical Engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

During my junior year, I got my first taste of scientific research when the opportunity arose to spend a few hours per week in a surface science lab.  Even though I made no meaningful contributions to my first lab (it once took me an entire afternoon to make up a one molar NaOH solution) I got hooked on science and I decided I wanted to get a Ph.D., thus negating the whole reason I’d chosen chemical engineering to begin with.  During my last few years of school, I spent my summers and other time off working at Athersys, Inc., which at that time was probably the only pharmaceutical or biotech company in the Cleveland area.  It was my first exposure to the alphabet soup of acronyms that is molecular and cell biology.  To me it was amazing that people seemed like they were beginning to understand how cells worked.  In retrospect, I was naively optimistic about understanding how living cells worked but the field had hooked me nonetheless.

After graduating in 2001, I spent two years in Tokyo (making up for a failure to take advantage of any junior-year abroad programs when I’d been in college), and then I started my Ph.D. program in chemical engineering at MIT.  My thesis research was on the metabolic engineering of bacteria for the production of commodity chemicals and fuels. Six years later, I graduated.  By then, I was ready for a change, so I took a post-doc in environmental microbiology on the other side of the country in California.

How did you end up working for a startup? What have your classmates ended up doing?

CF: A lot of my classmates knew they wanted non-academic careers.  Some of them even became management consultants or “quants” that worked for hedge funds.  Another group wound up going into more “traditional” industry jobs – into fields like pharmaceutical manufacturing, or into the technical staff of large chemical companies.  A fraction of our class stayed focused on an academic career, and some of those have now landed tenure-track academic positions.

Some of my classmates founded their own startups, and a few joined existing startups as an early employee.  I dabbled with starting a company while in graduate school.  My two co-founders participated some business plan competitions and other “entrepreneurship” events while we were in grad school.  Our team enjoyed some success in those competitions.  We considered leaving graduate school to work on our nascent company but ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to jeopardize a potential academic career, and that I needed to finish my Ph.D.  One of my partners decided he needed to finish grad school too.  Thus our would-be company folded before it ever got off the ground.  The post-doc I took after graduating was in a lab focused more on fundamental science than on applied research. I thought I was leaving any entrepreneurial opportunities I had behind to pursue basic research.

A year or so into my post-doc, I got an email.  It was from a grad-school acquaintance.  He’d gone on to found a company, it was doing well, and they were looking for someone to lead a new research program they were starting.  I flew back to Boston, and really fell in love with the founding team, their vision, and   It helped that the research program they wanted to start was in an area that had been a personal fascination of mine (the microbial metabolism of one-carbon compounds).  It also helped that they had lots of liquid-handling robots to play with, and that the founding team were all folks that I knew I could learn a lot from.  I’ve been at Ginkgo Bioworks since early 2011 and have really enjoyed it so far.  It’s not as different from the academic environment I left as I first expected it to be.

What should chemists know about what chemical engineers do? What misconceptions do chemists have? 

CF: Chemical engineers, contrary to what the name may seem to indicate, aren’t trained to know very much chemistry.  For many chem e’s, words like “nucleophile” and “electrophile” get forgotten as soon as the sophomore year of organic chemistry is passed.  Instead, the undergraduate curriculum focuses on applied math and on “systems-level” analysis (i.e. mass and energy balances) instead of molecular-level analysis.

At the Ph.D. level, the differences between chemistry and chemical engineering seem more blurred.  Everyone is so specialized.  For example, when I finished grad school, I had a lot more in common with chemists studying the microbial metabolism than I did with chemical engineers who had gone off to construct computational reaction-diffusion models of stratospheric photochemistry.

The main thing that chemists hopefully realize is that chemical engineers wind up working in all sorts of different fields, just like chemists.  (And, btw, a chemical engineer won the Priestley Medal last year.)

Do chemical engineers face the same job difficulties that chemists do? What's the job market been like for you and your classmates? 

CF: At the B.S. and M.S. levels, my understanding is that chemical engineers probably do have more opportunities than chemists do.  Look at the ACS’s 2010 “ChemCensus” – it reported that reported salaries for B.S. or M.S. chemical engineers were 20% higher than for chemists.  I don’t know why the difference is there.  My best guess is that the applied math skills at the core of the undergraduate engineering curriculum are useful in a very broad set of contexts.  Getting an engineering degree is a fairly reliable signal that you have those math skills.  I’m sure there are many chemists whose math skills outshine the median chemical engineer’s, but prospective employers would have to do a lot more work than just glancing at your resume to be convinced.  The ChemCensus data shows that moving to the doctoral level narrows the gap between chemists and chemical engineers.

Some of my grad-school friends and classmates definitely seemed to have a harder time finding positions since the 2007-2008 “crisis”, especially if they were looking for work in management consulting or in the pharmaceutical industry.  As for academic positions, I haven’t seen any hard data, but my sense is that many chemical engineering departments in the US have in the last 5 years decided to expand their presence in areas like energy.  That trend has boded well for my classmates with the right specialties.

Many thanks to Curt for a great interview.


  1. Well... I'm going to switch to chemical engineering then

  2. Put one vote in for me - I love the interviews...More, please!

  3. I second what See Arr Oh said. These interviews are very interesting and informative. The more the better!

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