When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl. Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles. But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped. The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley. I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow.
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly. But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast. I wanted to make a difference in a hurry.
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix. I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about.
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military. After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion.
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up.
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths. I couldn’t help but laugh.” He was right. He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you.“I'd like to think I've had my sharp corners knocked off, but it's hard to say, maybe I have a few more that I don't know about. Folks like Tom Loughlin are truly great and they have a lot of smart things to say.
So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress. No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1. Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can. The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed...
In regards to "an area that's... reasonably mature", there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, I feel. Truly low-hanging fruit doesn't happen very often - and when it occurs to the novice chemist (like myself), I always wonder "I am sure this has been considered before -- I wonder why it was rejected?"
Either way, I really enjoyed the piece and I hope to see more like it.