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Brewing a Career in the Chemical Industry

When Dutch biochemist Jeroen van Roon (pictured left) joined DSM, a specialty chemicals company based in the Netherlands, the scientist and the company already knew each other well: Van Roon had maintained ties with the company throughout his training. Before he finished his Ph.D., DSM offered him an assistant scientist position at their Food Specialties Division in Delft. Soon after, he was promoted to associate scientist.

Van Roon found, in the chemical industry and at DSM in particular, the challenge and excitement he was seeking in a career. Whereas most young scientists at DSM start in an existing group, in which their responsibilities are limited as they learn from more experienced scientists, Van Roon was tasked with starting a new lab from scratch. "It is a challenge to be able to manage it all, but it is great to be challenged," he says. "I really ended up in an exciting position, in an environment where I got the opportunity to show that I can handle it."

Industrial ties

Before graduating from a master's-degree programme in bioprocess engineering at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Van Roon arranged a 6-month working experience at DSM Deretil, a Spanish branch focused on the development and production of antibiotics. Then, when he got back to the Netherlands, he started a Ph.D. in the biocatalysis department at Wageningen University, working on the production of an antibiotic that was under development at DSM. "I knew very soon that it was a very nice company," he says. "If you are into white biotech and biocatalysis, it is one of the leading companies in the world." Van Roon was also impressed by the company's "very active R&D" and its "extensive R&D portfolio."

Despite his DSM connections, Van Roon did not limit his experience to a single company, nor did he limit his interest in enzymes to their catalytic properties. "I was always interested in enzymes," he says. "I wanted to learn a bit more about food applications." So while working on his Ph.D., he spent 15 to 20 hours each week at a very small food company developing emulsifiers and additives for the meat industry.

The next logical step, he decided, was a job at DSM Food Specialties. He joined the company as an assistant scientist in February 2005, 6 months before finishing his Ph.D. "Jeroen was known to DSM because his Ph.D. project was in cooperation with DSM," writes Onno de Vreede, Van Roon's line manager at DSM, in an e-mail. "We knew him as a person with a good reputation. He made (again) a good impression during his application at DSM so I was confident that he would be successful in the job that we offered him."

Jumping in at the deep end

According to Van Roon, most young Ph.D.s entering DSM start by working in an existing research group. "Their role is that they will be responsible for a part of the project," as they ease themselves into the role of group leader. But Van Roon was asked to set up a new application lab straightaway. "In my case," he say, "I started a new team; I had to learn everything." Van Roon's lab works on two different kinds of research projects. "My job is dual," he says. "One part is in ... the application and development of enzymes as they are used in the wine, beer, and fruit juice industry." A technical team visits beverage-industry customers to identify questions or problems they encounter while using the enzymes; then Van Roon's team finds answers and solutions.

The rest of the time, Van Roon helps bring new enzymes to market and develop new applications. He sees these roles as complementary. "When new products are launched, a lot of questions are asked by customers," he says. Customer feedback then helps the team--and the company--identify new scientific and market opportunities.

"I am working very little at the bench," says Van Roon. "We have very experienced technicians trained to work with the equipment." His main role in the lab is to "come up with or work out ideas and be responsible for the scientific input needed to make the product a success."

"Last year was a year full of challenges," Van Roon says. "The company was demanding a lot of me. We got some troubles and got some delays." But "we are learning and making progress," he says. "We are becoming a professional team." He finds it especially rewarding to watch a product he was involved in come to the market. "We presented this product"--Brewers Clarex--"at the International Brewers' Convention last year in Prague. We worked very hard on that. It was great to see a big launch. The benefits are real."

The challenges continue. "One year after the start, Jeroen's team has grown to 4 people, and a new lab room is up and running," writes de Vreede. "[The] challenge for Jeroen is to make his team now a 'smooth operation,' which is linked efficiently to the project/business organisation, and which has an excellent knowledge base in the new field" that the team is working in.

Job requirements

To be an industrial scientist, "you have to be curious," he says, "and have a bit of creativity. It is also hard work; you really need to jump in." But the most important skill for aspiring industrial researchers, he says, is the ability to work in teams. DSM project groups include scientists from other disciplines as well as business people and line managers, who make sure that products are in line with customers' needs. DSM calls it the three-axis model. "In terms of competencies," echoes de Vreede, "a good industrial scientist has a good helicopter view, takes a lot of initiatives also toward areas other than his own, and has good communication skills to work smoothly together in multidisciplinary teams."

Industrial work, Van Roon continues, also requires a certain kind of discipline. "In university, you can do experiments and take the one that suits you. But in industry, ... we are more focused toward goals. We are trying ... to get enough information to answer the question well, but we are [also] trying not to be disturbed by other topics."

Van Roon "deliberately leaves open" what his next step will be, but it probably will be within the company. One advantage of the three-axis model, he says, is that scientists are exposed to different roles and responsibilities and their careers can evolve in different directions. "You may end up as a good corporate scientist or a project manager, and you can become a very important person in business or line management or HR. The company really makes an effort to match your desires and abilities," he says.

"Networking is important to get a job," says de Vreede. He doesn't have to look far to find an example. "I knew the organisation," says Van Roon. "I really wanted it, and people saw it."

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