CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Barack Obama smiles down at Paula Hammond every day. A framed photo of the president, standing next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist, hangs on the wall over her desk here at MIT. “That was from his 2009 visit,” she says with a grin. Hammond was one of only a few MIT faculty members selected to present their work to the president in what turned out to be like a grown-up version of a science fair. She presented work on virus-based batteries. “We had to explain our science in 5 minutes,” she says. “But then Obama asked so many questions that we went way over time.”
Like Obama, Hammond is an emblem of change. Her chemical engineering research has evolved rapidly over the 15 years since she got started, riding some of that field's big trends. It started with a fairly fundamental study of polymers, the long chains that certain organic molecules form. First it was their mechanochromic properties—how their colors shift in response to physical stress—then their thermochromic properties, and finally their electrochromic properties. “I find color fascinating,” Hammond says.
Ph.D. graduates of Paula Hammond’s lab at MIT work in academia, government, and several different industries.
That basic research has since yielded a torrent of industrial applications, from medical diagnostic devices to flexible electronics—more than enough to keep most scientists busy. Starting in 2001, she added a sideline on military applications, helping found the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT, focusing on technology that protects soldiers from harm and heals their wounds. For example, her lab developed a material that can be sprayed onto wounds to accelerate blood clotting.
Her evolution hasn't slowed. The virus-based battery she showed off to President Obama was just one of many new projects. She is also designing smart drug delivery systems that detect and react to their environment within the body.
There are limits, though. “That's something I've learned the hard way,” Hammond says. “It's really a struggle to run a lab of more than about 30 people. I like to meet one-on-one, and there's only so much time in the day.” Right now, her lab has three dozen people, evenly divided between graduate students and postdocs.
Then, of course, there's Hammond herself: an African-American woman running one of the most productive chemical engineering labs at one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world. Diversity in the science workforce has improved steadily, but women and African Americans—and even more so African-American women—are still underrepresented in her field. Those characteristics are “only a part of who I am and my experience, but an important part,” she says. “I am very aware of how few minority women scientists with any profile at all are out there.”
This is the second in a series of articles examining the scientific career landscape through the lens of a single laboratory. The first looked at the 20-year life of a big psychology laboratory at Northeastern University. The single largest challenge described by those alumni and alumnae was finding a permanent faculty position. Finding tenured jobs is no easier for chemical engineers, but the pressure is relieved by the steady stream of industry jobs. The problem described by many who launched their career from the Hammond Lab—and it is a good problem to have—is how to decide among many career paths available to them.
Hammond clearly remembers how she decided to pursue this career. After graduating with a B.S. from MIT in 1984, she went right into industry, in electronic manufacturing at Motorola. After 2 years on the job, she went back to academia to get more training, completing a master's degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. It was, she says, like a breath of fresh air. “That sold me on academia,” she says. “I knew then that I was definitely not going back to manufacturing. I wanted the freedom to pursue my own research.” And so the prodigal daughter returned to MIT to do a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Except for a 1.5-year postdoctoral stint at nearby Harvard University, she’s been at MIT ever since.
Facing the same fork, Hammond’s first graduate student took the other road. Sarah Clark joined the lab in its earliest days. “Paula and I walked into her new lab space, and all the counters, hoods, and shelves were bare,” says the materials scientist at the Northborough, Massachusetts, R&D center of Saint-Gobain, the giant company based in France. The only chemicals were “two 20-ml vials of alkanethiol solutions,” which would become the starting material for Clark's Ph.D. project.
“I didn't realize until later how many useful soft skills you pick up as a 'first' grad student,” Clark says. She learned how to set up a lab, how to work out safety protocols and best practices, and how to lean on “generous grad students and professors” who could help her out when she needed something. That resourcefulness served her well after the Ph.D. when she dove into a 3D printing start-up. She joined Saint-Gobain in 2006.
“A stereotype of the academia versus industry debate is that you get to work on whatever you want if you stay in academia,” Clark says. She doesn't buy it. For one thing, it “implies that the only rewarding scientific research is a topic you have picked for yourself.” Clark says she hasn’t been constrained in industry and that her collaborative research there has been deeply satisfying. “I have moved from mechanical engineering applications to solar module design and performance and now work on topics in biotech and regenerative medicine ... without changing desks,” she says. To make it in industry, you have to be a “scientific generalist who knows how to swim when thrown into ambiguous or new technical topics.”
The middle road
Industrial research can have a more immediate impact than academic research. A downside is that while academics get to publish their research openly, industrial labs often keep their work secret. One way to get the best of both worlds is a career in a government lab, says Dean DeLongchamp, who finished his Ph.D. in the Hammond Lab in 2003 and now leads flexible electronics research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
“I straddle both worlds,” he says, keeping on top of current academic research but always with an eye toward industrial application. He publishes all his research openly, by necessity. “We have to be transparent to avoid playing any favorites among companies.” Of course, this transparency doesn’t hold for every government lab, many of which do classified defense research.
University jobs do have undeniable advantages. “I get to direct research on my own terms, and I have a flexible work schedule,” says Jodie Lutkenhaus, a chemical engineer at Texas A&M University in College Station, who finished her Ph.D. in the Hammond Lab in 2007. “Academia is perfect for me.”
Lutkenhaus has achieved something that’s only a fleeting dream for most academic couples: She and her husband landed jobs in the same department. “The lack of work-life separation can be difficult to manage,” she admits, but they both have rewarding jobs, they avoid the difficulties and hazards of a long-distance relationship, and “we watch our kids jointly at work if they are sick or if school is out”—a big plus, Lutkenhaus says.
According to a 2013 survey by the American Chemical Society, women earn a third of the Ph.D.s in chemical engineering and half the master's degrees. But the gender ratio is much worse for tenured professors. Lutkenhaus is one of three women on the 27-member faculty of the Texas A&M chemical engineering department. In some ways, she is facing an experience that was more routine for women in science decades ago.
“Students have very different expectations for me as an instructor, relative to my male colleagues,” she says. “Many interact with me as they might with a parent, sharing personal details or even crying in my office.” Now, she says, “I can put on my 'mom hat' and advise students on how to study or behave appropriately in the class. I think of it as tough love, where you nurture the students, but you also enforce rules and codes of professionalism and ethics into the class.”
Standing out as being different in a university setting bothered Lutkenhaus at first, “but now, not at all,” she says. Like Hammond, her mentor, she is evolving.