My Life’s Employment as a Chemist

As a child, I was enthralled by the clear-night sky in winter with so many stars and the big, bold moon! I had to have a telescope. When I reached the eighth grade, we were asked to choose a career we would like to pursue. I picked astronomy! Enthusiastically, I approached my father who was very open-minded, and my mother who had strong opinions on the matter. “You will be poor all your life. No!”

I seldom questioned my mother. So I had to find something else. Mom had a friend who was a chemical engineer. He was financially well to do. “Yes, you can pursue chemistry.” Four or five years later, I attended Drexel University, in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the Drexel activity center (DAC) pulled at me like a magnet. I skipped many classes and my grades suffered. I caught myself in time and graduated, though not among the top students. In addition, the job market for my field had bottomed out.

After drawing up a resume and going for many interviews, I decided I would need to take non-related work to support myself. I was able to get jobs, but the pay was poor and I had loans to pay. When I did go for a technical interview, I was inevitably asked, “What have you done in your field these past few years?” My truthful answer shut doors for me. I moved to another state, fell in love, and wanted to marry. How could I do that without a good job? I found one with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)! While the pay was fair and the benefits good, the work was only remotely related to chemistry. Ironically, it combined chemistry with astronomy.

At least I was to electroplate electronics, and not car bumpers or kiddies’ toys. I would plate state-of-the-art, microwave devices, including feedhorns for picking up radio signals from space and amplifiers to bolster those signals. The work would not be without its challenges. Consider feedhorns: cone-shaped devices with a small opening in the back and a larger opening in the front. Feedhorns are grooved along their interior, with an “aspect ratio” as high as 6:1. That means the grooves were six times as deep as they were wide. The literature advises a ratio not much greater than 1:1. I had to ignore the literature and succeed.

I had to perform other activities as well, including anodizing, electrocleaning and electropolishing. Engineers would ask me if I could make what they were designing. Machinists would bring me the machined objects for metal finishing. In between jobs, I would have to test and maintain the electroplating baths. It was also my job to educate the public in our work. Jobs that had never been done before were my everyday fare. Once I was asked to electroform a liquid-helium tank and had only one chance to succeed. I was expected to use equipment that was hopelessly inadequate. If there was so much as one flaw in the finished piece, I would be a failure. I even custom made the solutions used to plate the tank. The day came; I made the device; it had a flaw; I had failed. Wonderfully, the flaw was located right where a hole was to be drilled. Failure turned into success!

During the twenty-three years I worked for NRAO, I was associated with some really nice people. I gave many tours and was introduced to some capable, even famous scientists. Then one day, I decided it was time to retire. I would pass my laboratory on to a man who was assisting me. Are you asking if, given the opportunity, I would do all this again? Honestly, the answer is, no – I wouldn’t. I would instead go for a trade – one that is always in demand, wherever I would choose to live. I would work at something the average person benefits from and that would bring to me satisfaction at the end of each day.

Now what about you? Your life’s work is your choice. But if I may be allowed to do so, I suggest you do not be too quick to jump onto the college bandwagon. Oftentimes, university environments bring peer pressure of the worst sort, including those who would introduce you to drug abuse and other bad life choices. Besides, fast-food restaurants pay engineers and scientists the same pay as bricklayers and mechanics. And learning those trades does not require your going into heavy debt. Instead, you are rewarded with a satisfying job done and a good night’s sleep.

Sources: Personal Experience

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