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Sarah Chinn is a staff chemist and group leader at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. | Photo courtesy of LLNL.
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Sarah Chinn is a staff chemist and group leader at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, or LLNL. She has also been featured in our Women @ Energy series. Here, Sarah answers a few questions about what it means to be a chemist at a National Lab.
What does your job entail?
My job has evolved over the years, and continues to be very dynamic.
Starting as a postdoctoral researcher 12 years ago, I worked on several internally and externally funded lab projects, performing a technique used to detect chemical weapons agents called nuclear magnetic resonance analysis of a variety of materials. Much of my technical work has involved investigations of polymer aging -- or how polymers change under harsh environmental conditions, such as radiation and high temperatures. I currently lead a team of several researchers performing this type of research for Energy Department programs.
I have also worked on several projects involving chemical threat agents, ranging from agent fate to decontamination to environmental sample analysis to consequence management. I also serve in a line management role as the Group Leader for the Forensic Science and Assessments Group within the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate at LLNL. Most of my work now is focused on project management and program and employee development, though I do occasionally get into the lab still.
How did you end up in your career?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a veterinarian, and I started college thinking I'd major in biology and go to vet school. In my first semester at Mount Holyoke College, it turned out that chemistry fit into my schedule better than biology, so I took it thinking I'd just get it out of the way and move on to my bio classes.
By the end of the first semester, I had fallen in love with chemistry and declared a chemistry major. I never took biology until junior year, and then only because it was a requirement of my chem major!
For two summers in college, I interned at a chemical company outside Chicago, and was introduced to numerous amazing opportunities available as a chemist. Toward the end of my time at Mount Holyoke, I performed independent research with two separate amazing women who inspired me to pursue graduate research. I went on to obtain a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at UC Davis, graduating in 2002, and then began a postdoctoral research assignment at LLNL.
At LLNL, my career has followed several paths that touched several large programs at the lab, but I was fortunate to have many great mentors to help direct me to where I am today. Some of my career path has happened by choice, and some by chance, but I am certain that the contributions of numerous people along the way influenced my path.
What education and training do you need to be a part of your team?
At the LLNL Forensic Science Center, our staff comes from a range of scientific disciplines, ranging from chemists to chemical engineers to physicists to biologists. Most scientists have masters or doctoral degrees, and many of us specialize in analytical, physical, organic or biochemistry. We also have staff that have forensic science degrees along with their advanced science degrees.
Is there a fairly direct career path? Or is this something that people take multiple routes to end up at?
There are definitely multiple routes to end up in this type of career, whether it is a career at traditional forensics or crime lab or at a National Lab. Our Center is a little different than a "traditional" forensics lab that one might imagine from CSI or other TV shows. While we do occasionally support our local law enforcement with hard cases, much of our work is in support of larger federal programs and sponsors such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.
Most people entering in this field of work don't have lots of field experience in analyzing the types of materials we routinely investigate (e.g. chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and/or explosive hazards), but there are many scientists that possess skill sets that could easily be applied to this line of research.
What is the best part of working in your field?
Our facility routinely handles materials and tackles science challenges that most other facilities in the country can't, so it is easy to quickly become one of the nation's experts in a very interesting and unique field of research. The National Lab environment provides a great mix of academic research and applied science that truly addresses large, national problems with the infrastructure, capabilities and expertise to match.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start a career as a scientist?
Explore lots of different opportunities as you develop your career, and try not to get too fixated on following one specific career path. You never know what new and exciting opportunities may present themselves, so be flexible to change.
Most of all, don't be afraid to try new things and step outside your comfort zone every now and then. One of my mentors once told me that if I was completely comfortable starting a new job, then I would be bored with it in six months. I have to remind myself of this on a regular basis, but it keeps me going when I feel overwhelmed!