Interview With a Chemist

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie

Jacob Cowley is a professional chemist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been working for an Industrial Chemical Manufacturer for over a year. He started as an intern during his undergraduate program at the University of Utah and was hired as a full-time Technical Services Chemist after graduating with his degree in chemistry. Falling in love with the subject a little by chance, Jacob is nothing but complimentary of his now-profession.

Check out our interview with him below!

-What does it mean to be a Technical Services Chemist?

It’s basically quality control for the industrial products we manufacture that need testing. Some quality control testing can be done by anyone, but some manufacturing products have to be checked by somebody with a chemistry background.

-What kind of products do you produce and test?

A lot of the stuff we make is pretty basic, like acids and bases. Hydrochloric acid, or sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hydroxide. We also make basic cleaning products, like soaps. We have a small pharmaceutical division too, where some of the things we make have a lot more oversight and documentation.

We make all kinds of items, but that’s the bulk of it. Some of the stuff we actually manufacture and some of it we purchase. For example, we will ship in multiple train cars with 90 percent sulfuric acid, and then we will dilute it to 50 percent and sell it.

-When did you first become interested in chemistry?

I think it was kind of a means to an end at first, because I was pre-med. I think the first time I really started thinking about it as seriously something I was interested in was when I took organic chemistry.

-What about organic chemistry interested you?

It made sense. It was like: “Here are a lot of things you are familiar with, like hormones in your body, drugs that you take, and chemical reactions that go on all the time, and here’s how they work.” For me it was a very fundamental way to see how the world around me operated.

-What kind of education and training do you need to get a job in your profession?

A lot of the people in our company just need a high school diploma. They are the operators. They are the ones that are actually doing the hard work, like unloading train cars and working with reactors.

Everyone that works in my lab though has at least a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or chemical engineering. Laboratory experience can get you the job, but I think most companies would want you to work towards your degree eventually.

-Where was your training and education?

At the University of Utah. The lecture classes were important to have a background to understand what I was doing, but my experience in laboratory instruction classes were much more important in relation to my day to day work. I also had my internship, and did some research working under a grad student for an honors thesis.

-Do you want to do more school and training?

Yes I do. I like my current job; it’s been a really good job. But I’m starting to think about my next step. There’s a lot of ways I can pivot, so I’m just taking my time to do some research and look into different types of programs. But for now, I’m content where I’m at.

-Did you work in addition to training/schooling?

I did work while I was in school, but it wasn’t related to the chemistry field. It was in assisted living. That didn’t hinder me from eventually getting my current job though.

-What’s your favorite thing about being a chemist?

As much as I like people, it is not an exhausting line of work with me because for the vast majority of my job, I do my own thing. I interact with people in my lab, but they are pretty quiet and chill. When I got home from work at assisted living, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted, but now I get home from work and I have tons of energy and am able to enjoy the rest of my evening. It’s much less demanding on me as an employee.

Also, if I make a mistake at work, we can fix it; there’s no life or death on the line. It’s a very relaxed environment. Sometimes it gets busy, but never to the point where I get stressed out. I can kind of just zone out and do my thing. When the day is done, I get in my car and don’t think about work until I go in the next day.

-What would surprise people about your profession?

I think it would surprise people, honestly, how doable it is. When people hear chemistry, they get intimidated a lot of the time. Of course the theory behind it and actually doing research can be quite challenging, but the day to day operations of the majority of chemists is fairly accessible to most people with a little on the job training.

-What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing chemistry?

I think if someone told me they were interested in pursuing a career in chemistry, I would advise them to reach out to some companies in the area to see if they could tour or shadow someone. A subject can interest you but the job might not. You could be interested in medicine, but not enjoy the day to day of being a doctor.

Living in Salt Lake City, Jacob is able to use his time out of the lab participating in outdoor activities. Growing up in the Midwest, he loves that he now knows how to snowboard. Jacob enjoys running with his dog Mowgli, playing soccer when he gets the chance, and playing the guitar with his wife on the drums. Jacob also uses his free time to read quite frequently. When asked to provide a surprising fact about himself, he responded that he memorized “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carrol in high school, which according to him is a “nonsense poem that’s fun to say.”

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