Name: Naveen Chopra
Field of Work: Chemistry/Materials Science
Place of Birth: Montréal
Your job title: Research Chemist
We've all sat in front of a bunsen burner wondering when we'll ever need to know the atomic weight of carbon in real life. Well, in this installment of Careers, Naveen Chopra tells us about his job as a Research Chemist for Xerox, where he puts that kind of knowledge to use every day making new materials in the lab.
What is a Research Chemist?
A research chemist’s job can vary greatly from place to place. Oftentimes research staff members are specialized in one or two specific areas. Some people deal mainly with instrumentation, for example, image analysis (such as electron microscopy to look at sub-microscopic features (some things as small as the fine features of an insect eye!), while others like myself specialize with organic synthesis. What’s that, you ask? It’s when we make compounds in the lab. We start with materials A, B and C, and using carefully prescribed procedures often involving heat and solvents, we create D. The common theme of a researcher’s profession is to observe and report findings, whether you’re making materials or testing materials.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me involves starting a reaction in the lab to make a compound, and while the synthesis is underway, I get caught up on my emails, mostly processing information from others, or sharing my results. Nearly all our research is done in teams, and we share all our findings together. Also, from time to time, I have to review some patent applications, which involves a lot of reading and looking up references (more on that later-argggh!)
Did you always want to be a Research Chemist?
Actually, at one point in time, I wanted to be a dentist. Back then, as it is now, it was a very competitive field to enter, and the required marks to get in were very high. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the sciences field, so along the way, I discovered how much fun a career in Chemistry could be and through my graduate and postgraduate experiences to my job today, Chemistry has taken me to some very exciting places.
What courses in high school prepared you for this field?
Chemistry (obviously) was a good preparation, as well as the rest of the sciences such as physics and biology. Mathematics was also very helpful, especially in my university courses, where Physical Chemistry and Quantum Mechanics courses heavily relied on a background in Calculus.
Where did you go to university/college?
For my University B.Sc. Degree, I went to The University of Western Ontario. For my Ph.D. Degree, I went to the University of British Columbia. For my Postdoctoral Fellowship, I spent 14 months overseas at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
How did you decide where to go?
In selecting a University, I wanted to gain some independence by moving away from home, and London seemed like a good fit, in that it was out of town (Mississauga), but not so far that I couldn’t come home on the odd weekend. Also, Western had a good reputation in Sciences, and at the time, I was still keen on pursuing a career in Dentistry, and Western has a Dental School.
For my graduate work, I was seeking another change, and I had heard many good things about UBC in Vancouver, it had a strong organic chemistry program, and it was a good school. Knowing how beautiful BC was, with the mild climate, fantastic skiing/biking/hiking certainly helped in my decision as well J
In choosing a school for PostDoctoral work, I wanted to travel internationally, but I was not ready to take an entire year off to do so. Also, I was looking for a place where the language barrier would not be an issue. I had been in contact with a Professor from Melbourne, Australia, and as luck would have it, when I was finishing up my Ph.D., he had a position available in his group.
And when it was time to find a job, I began to apply for positions back in Canada, starting with the GTA. Who knew that I would end up at Xerox back in Mississauga where I went to High School!
Was there extra training required for this career after you finished college/university? If so, what?
My postdoctoral fellowship prepared me for the job at Xerox by teaching me how to carry out research projects independently, and supervise others in the lab.
What is the coolest part of your job?
The coolest part of my job is being able to create new materials in the lab, and I have a significant degree of freedom to explore lots of new ideas and test some concepts. I work in a very dynamic, close-knit team, and we have a lot of fun making new discoveries together.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The worst part of my job is the paperwork and endless meetings that crop up on an almost daily basis. As we live in an electronic age, I receive 10-20 emails a day on average. It can get very frustrating to sift through all of them, and it’s important to be able to prioritize which ones are worthy of your time. As for the meetings, sometimes they drag on and go over time, which can prevent you from finishing up what you’ve planned in the lab that day. Good time management practices and being selective with what you focus on can usually help you navigate the barrier of paperwork/meetings.
What’s the salary range for this particular job and field?
For a research job, the salary ranges can vary widely, and is mainly dictated by the level of education and number of years served with the company. People with a Ph.D. can expect to make $70,000/year or more.
Ooooops! Everyone makes mistakes so what was the dumbest thing you've ever done at work?
When I was a co-op student at a Pulp and Paper research company (whose name shall remain nameless to avoid further embarrassment J), I was asked to disperse a paper sample in water for extraction studies. I started by stirring the paper in a beaker with a magnetic stir bar, and my co-workers were laughing at me, saying ‘you need to use the Waring to do that’ (a Waring is a blender). So, I poured the entire beaker of water/paper/stirbar into the Waring and started blending away. Within a few seconds, I heard this terrible crunching sound, with black bits appearing in the blender. I thought to myself, ‘Geez, what’s in the paper that could be doing that?’. The next thing I knew, the blender had cracked and the water/paper sludge had spilled all over the floor. Then I realized that I had put the magnetic stir bar in the blender too!!! Luckily I was not hurt by flying glass bits, and it was only water and paper. I felt pretty dumb that day!
Any advice that you would give others seeking a similar career?
If you’re seeking a career in Science, I would strongly urge you to get engaged in a high-school co-op program which allows you to spend part of your school year working for a company as a student intern. There’s no better way to learn about what goes on the real world. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, you get to learn some cool stuff in a research environment, and the company benefits by having an extra set of hands to carry out the time-consuming tasks that are very important to the project. My only regret is that such a program was not available to me in high school. I would also urge others to enter a co-op program in University as well-it’s definitely worth the extra year of school. You get to work with different companies, live in different cities, and meet lots of people. Also, it’s a great way to network and make a name for yourself when it’s time to leave school and find a permanent job.
What are some great web links or references for someone interesting in reading up more about this career?
As for Xerox, we’re on Facebook, there’s a page called ‘So What DOES Xerox Do?’
Also, if you can get out to some job fairs, they are a great resource to see what’s happening in companies today. It’s a lot more useful to interact with someone in person, than in print or electronically.
What is the last movie you saw? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Star Trek-thumbs up. Great action flick.
What are the top 5 songs on your mp3 player?
All Night Long-Scorpions
What is and What Should Never Be-Led Zeppelin
You just won a million dollars. What’s the first thing you’d do?
Pay off my mortgage, then buy a 1977 Lincoln Town Car
Chocolate or Vanilla?
What celebrity do you most resemble?
Stone Cold Steve Austin or Dr. Evil (take your pick)
What’s your favorite holiday?
What’s the all-time best movie?
What’s the best thing about Canada?
We are the greatest hockey nation!