What REALLY Makes a Good Analytical Chemist in 2016

April 6, 2016
The Column
Volume 7, Issue 12

Incognito ponders what it takes to be a “good” analytical chemist. Do you make the grade?

In my previous column I wrote about what it might take to be a “great” analytical chemist.

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But we should also consider what it takes, in 2016, to be a “good” analytical chemist. Perhaps more applicable to most of us, I hope it acts to stimulate thought on whether you meet these criteria, what you can do to improve yourself, and even how to exceed the criteria outlined.   To establish a “baseline” of current thinking, let’s look at what is written on a global blue-chip pharmaceutical company website as the necessary skills for a chromatography laboratory worker:   • Self-confidence and motivation • Ability to prioritize • Presentation skills • Good numeracy • IT skills • Creativity • Ability to work in cross-functional teams • Natural curiosity • Flexible working practices • Meticulous and thorough approach   Some of these are accurate – others are way wide of the mark, and I have to say I don’t recognize many of these as key skills for the modern analytical laboratory. Here’s my list of what it takes to make the grade.  

Desire to Help

  Most of what we do is based on helping others. We serve the businesses we work in and our place is generally a support function to the main business activity. In the most part, we “enable” the scientific endeavour of our internal or external clients. So, if providing insight and answers to others to allow them to succeed isn’t in your nature, then this really isn’t the right career for you.   You can write about being naturally inquisitive, determined, and great at problem solving all you like, but if fundamentally you don’t get a kick out of seeing other people enlightened by what you have done, then take another path.    This also highlights that in our industry we are infrequently up for the “best leading actor” award, and “best supporting actor” is often the most we can hope for. We seek professional gratification in other ways, such as improving the quality or speed of our problem solving or enabling new types of information to be generated.  

Manual Dexterity

  I remember an old laboratory manager of mine once telling someone they were “practically useless because they were useless practically”. In those days your spanner agility was key to being able to get meaningful data. Whilst these days it’s not quite as important because systems have become much more integrated, we have to remember that we are paid to make complex instruments produce fit-for-purpose data. You will therefore need to have good practical skills and even the simplest tasks, such as installing a gas chromatography (GC) or high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) column, needs a level of manual dexterity and an understanding of the right and wrong way to do something – which often comes through a natural “feeling” for correctness of fit, rather than the ability to follow a set of instructions.   If you can’t easily recognize when a nut is cross threaded, when tight is “too tight!”, or if you can’t hold a spanner and inherently know which direction you need to turn the nut to tighten or loosen it you really need to think about more supervised practice, or a change of emphasis in your career path.   I’m famous for the saying “A good chemist can pour from anything, into anything”, which is often the cause of my downfall as my kids watch me spill the gravy all over the kitchen bench. However, over the years I have come to realize that this is actually a pretty good test of manual dexterity and the amount of spills you make in general volumetric work is a good indicator of one’s natural practical ability.  

A Desire to Understand the Big Picture (Resilience!)

  I distinctly remember a key turning point in my career came from a ticking off from an old supervisor who told me that I could never properly solve a problem until I understood all of the possible contributing factors. At the time I swore under my breath and walked away, frustrated that this was an insurmountable task. When I'm teaching gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) interpretation courses, once we get into practising with real spectra, I’ll often come up with a statement or rationale to justify an assignment for a signal in the MS and students will shout up “How were we supposed to know that?” I answer that the difference between a new chef and a good chef is many burns and a few buckets of sweat. You simply need to put in the hard yards and learn your trade.    If you don’t have the desire to improve your understanding of the processes involved in your analysis, the way a detector works, why this particular analyte degrades, or what has led to the poor sensitivity then you won’t be able to effectively avoid and solve issues.   I’m the first to admit that my knowledge of organic chemistry isn’t the best, but I know enough to be able to investigate where issues might occur and what techniques, columns, or detectors might be required to get the data I require. Most of this knowledge is experiential rather than intuitive, gained by taking an interest in what I was doing – far beyond following the recipe and really caring that I understood the theory.   Simon Sinek, author and originator of the concept “Start with Why”, says “The big picture doesn't just come from distance; it also comes from time”.

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You have to stick with it  

Resourcefulness

  An old friend, whilst himself a fresh faced youth, told me “It wasn’t what you knew that mattered, it was knowing where to find it”.   He has been proved right during my own career more times than I care to mention and of course this concept, the immediacy of help and information, has been revolutionized by the internet.   Yet isn’t it strange then that I see the average analyst as being lonelier and more isolated than ever before. I attribute this to the loss of “translators” in the lab. You can have all of the information at your fingertips, but if you don’t know what it means, how to use it, or its relevance to your current issue, then you are no further forwards. Translators are those folks who have learned how to use the information and can help you to apply wider knowledge and theory to your own work. Sure, you can have all the senior analysts and managers you like, but most of them are primarily interested in timeliness; some are interested in quality but virtually none are there to go above and beyond, to help you deepen your own understanding. It’s a shame.   Translators aren’t necessarily the “department experts” who got paid off years ago, rather it’s those folks with a deep seated interest in what they do and who care about the science of our business, rather than the business of our business. It’s those people who, when asked a question, will scuttle off and bring back a paper, a book, or magazine article that can help with your problem. They will talk you through a similar issue that someone had several years ago and find the report in the company archives. They will pull out of their top pocket an old notebook with reference values, tables, and factors. They will help you to develop your own understanding.   You may be lucky enough to have a “translator” in your laboratory. I encountered one lately. Quite a young person and most of their archive was on-line and accessed via a tablet. It was nice to see that these people still exist and their resourcefulness will help to decrease the isolation of those who have not yet learned the language of analytical science.  

Good Communication Skills

  You have two ears and one mouth – use them in that proportion. This is taught on every Sales #101 you ever attend, but it’s as true for an analytical scientist as it is a sales person. The ability to understand your customers’ requirements and communicate analytical data depends more upon your ability to listen and understand than to convey our own messages.   That being said, the ability to convey your message, to present your data, and to help your customer lies in you knowing the language of analytical science, of chemistry, and of the business you are in.   If you haven’t been to a conference to listen to a world-class speaker in chromatography, if you haven’t read an award-winning poster, or listened to the way a top CEO or CFO conveys their message, then you need to get out more (if your travel budget allows……).   All the “communication skills” courses in the world can’t replace the impact you will get from observing the great communicators in your own field of work, because the context matters as much as the mechanisms of good communication.  

Good IT Skills

  Computers and digital technology are at the heart of our work. Computers control the instruments we use, help us to generate our results, report them to our customers, and store them long term.   The ability to manipulate sample names in a sequence table, automate a batch reporting function, evaluate the peak purity within a total ion chromatogram, produce a pivot table, draw a reaction scheme, calculate a value in a spreadsheet, collate data from many sources into a single document, and effectively disseminate and back-up data is critical. The list here is only a snapshot of the way we use information technology.   The better you are with computers and digital technology, the quicker and more effectively you will work. This will have a direct bearing on your productivity – which, unfortunately, is how many analytical scientists are measured in the modern laboratory.  

Good Numeracy Skills

  What I’m about to say may make some people really cross – however, I’m speaking from my own experience, which is what I’m asked to do in this column.   The ability to work through a calculation and spot errors, follow the logical path and assess each outcome for its credibility are key skills in both mathematics and analytical science. We are deeply entrenched in numbers, a whole branch of our work deals with quantitative analysis and if you are not adept at producing and evaluating data then you will struggle as a chromatographer.   In my experience “good” analytical chemists have a mathematical brain.   You will probably spend as much time at work as you will with your family, so whatever you do, you really ought to make sure you enjoy it. In my experience, most people working in analytical science are doing so because they like science, but I see too many folks plying their trade in a business that is close to where they live or which was hiring at the time they needed a job. The best scientists are generally found in labs where they enjoy the business of their employer. Not everyone wants to be in forensic toxicology or cancer research or biopharmaceuticals or sports medicine – but lots do! As an old friend of mine once told his kids, “I don’t care what you do. As long as you strive to be good at what you do, you will have a rewarding career”.  

References

  1. Incognito,

The Column

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(12), 2–5 (2016). 2. Simon Sinek,

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

(Portfolio, 2011).