PNAS: Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, Enzyme Scientist

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, who works as a scientist in the food industry.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am an assistant scientist for an enzyme company. I work in the R&D department; I focus on finding uses for our enzymes in the food industry and supporting our customers.

2) What is your science background?

I have a B.S. in Molecular Biology/English from UW-Madison. I also have a Masters Degree in Technical and Scientific Communication from Miami University.

3) What led you to this job?

I saw an ad in the paper for a temp position baking bread for an enzyme company (not the one I currently work for). I was between jobs, and this one requested someone with a science/biology background. Intrigued, I applied for the job and was accepted. Eventually, I was hired full-time to run experiments on enzymes. The company was bought out a few years later. I was transferred to Quality Control, but I found a job in R&D with another enzyme company, and I’ve been there for seven years.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I spend a fair amount of time at the lab bench; the rest of my time, I’m in my office writing reports, attending lab meetings, or looking things up/ordering supplies online. Occasionally I may visit a customer to present the results of a project.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

One of the things I love about my job is the way my “typical day” varies. Some of my most common tasks include running samples on the GC or HPLC, planning/setting up experiments (or tasting the results of my experiments), and assaying enzymes for activity.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

My science background is indispensable for my job. I need to understand the specifics of how the enzymes act to plan my experiments. For example, if I’m working on a dairy product and want to break down the fat in it with a lipase, I need to know what types of fatty acids the dairy product has and how they will affect taste. Some fatty acids have a cheesy flavor, while others may be soapy. By changing the type of lipase I use, I can create different flavor profiles. I need to understand how to plan an experiment (what to use as a control, what variables to consider), so my science background comes into play here as well.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

I would recommend that a college student interested in this type of work major in biochemistry or a related field. Good writing and computer skills are also useful. Lab experience is very important; however, an internship with a company can provide this experience and possibly pave the way for a permanent position.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

The most important thing I’ve learned from science is to think critically about what’s presented to you. Are the facts correct? Is the reasoning sound? Are there any biases underlying the conclusions?

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Don’t let yourself be deterred from your chosen field by others. Learn to get along with others in your lab even if there’s a personality conflict.