Curt joins us for this week’s episode to discuss his journey in analytical chemistry. He is a currently a Contract Analytical Scientist at Cytiva (formerly GE Life Sciences), volunteers for high school science olympiads, and helps build resources supporting some of the field’s most complex instrumentation. He recently founded Centaur Technologies, a company built to provide technological development support and career services for analytical scientists.
In our interview, we discuss his career path, including his decision between pursuing a PhD or jumping right into industry.
The Reagent Podcast is brought to you by OnePointe Solutions, the leader in US laboratory design and construction. If you work in the sciences and need to renovate or expand your lab, contact us at (866) 612-7312 for custom furniture and equipment.
Hello, welcome to episode six of the reagent podcast. The reagent podcast is brought to you by one point solutions, the leader in US lab design and construction. My guest this week is Curtis guide. Kurt has his PhD in inorganic chemistry, and as an analytical scientist at citee va, formerly GE Life Sciences. He also founded his own company center technologies, specializing in analytical technology development and professional services. So hit him up on LinkedIn if you need help with a resume or a job search. In addition to all of this, Kurt volunteers for high school science Olympiads, helping develop the next generation of researchers and practitioners We talk about his journey making the tough decision between pursuing a PhD or going straight into industry, and his time developing resources for some of the industry’s most niche instruments. Here’s my interview with Kurt. Curtis, thanks for coming on the show. Glad to be here. So why don’t you tell everyone who’s not familiar a little bit about your background.
My background is in inorganic chemistry, which is the chemistry of every element on the periodic table except for carbon. And of that I’m a subset called an analytical chemist, which basically means that I tell you what something is and how much of it is is there. And this covers everything from medical devices over to aerospace and any type of commodity chemical that you run into in your everyday life.
You had your PhD right? What was that journey for you like to get into sciences and what piqued your interest there?
It was Quite the journey, quite frankly, I started out as an English student, and I was pulled out of my class by my English teacher along with a young lady. And she said to the two of us that we wrote our exams weirdly. And she suggested that I go talk to her friend who was the chemistry professor. And I was blown away by how little I knew. And that was kind of what drew me into it. Because it was just consistently discovering new and different ways to look at things. I didn’t have much of a math background didn’t have much of anything, any strong scientific background, the journey for me was difficult academically, because I had to kind of learn those things and get it together. But I got to work with incredible people and a lot of support from my peers from my mentors. And it really has been an incredible journey overall.
And what were some of the flicking points? Like what was the moment where you thought, hey, this English thing might not be working out. And this science thing is really something that’s gonna work for me
it. It really the clicking point for me was when I was in that first introductory chemistry class, I had the first exam done. And I had done moderately well on it. I mean, not not spectacular, overall. But the professor came to me after the class and he said, we have an open space in our research lab. And if you’d like I was a sophomore in college at the time, he said, if you’d like you can come in and we’ll at least get you started looking at vanadium catalysts which are used in a lot of chemical transformations. And as soon as I jumped into that, and I got to start Hanging out with with researchers in the lab and start to go to the different conferences and the different things that’s really when I realized, wait a sec, this is not just you know being locked in a basement room with no windows. This is actually something that’s a lot of fun.
Yeah. So like you really dove into all the stimulating conversations and the networking and the social side of things.
Oh, completely within. Within six months of me starting chemistry isn’t no math, no previous experience except for your typical High School. High school science class. Within six months, I was in Canada for conferences. I was driving around the Northeast, and I was up to my arms in a glove box, working with air free compounds and learning how to handle chemicals without having them exposed to air. And for a sophomore in Chem who’s been reading Shakespeare that really kind of was a kind of jumping into the deep end of the pool and I absolutely loved it.
That’s awesome. So once you You left your undergrad, was there kind of a crossroads for you? Are you debating whether, you know, continue on and get my PhD or go into industry? And what what did that decision look like?
Yes. Yeah, it was. So when I finished my undergrad, I interviewed at a company that makes filters and lenses for cameras and stuff like that. They had, actually, they’ve made some of the equipment that landed on the Mars rover. And so I interviewed with them and I was like, well, this seems really cool. And my chemistry mentor, Dr. Jerry Jones insky suggested that I look at graduate school. And he he told me it will Not be an easy experience. It’s gonna be very tight money, very hard work, but he said, it’ll be the best investment you can make. And that was really kind of where I did. I applied to two schools, I applied to the University of Vermont, which is where I’m from, from Northern Vermont, and the University of Connecticut, because I had my eyes on a couple of programs down at UConn. And I got into both schools. And when I did the tour at UConn, it was kind of set that this is the direction we’re going to go. Just a really great experience having some really great conversations with professors with different program directions and a lot of promise of growth. So that was where it kind of solidified.
Cool. And based on our phone conversation, it sounds like you’d really built up this interest Things skill. have, you know, a lot of technical expertise around equipment? You want to talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, I was extraordinarily lucky. My undergraduate was at Keene State College, and we had six chemistry students and seven chemistry professors. So you really can’t get much better in terms of student faculty ratio in my eyes. And we all as chemistry students ended up in different research labs and I immediately found myself hands on with spectrometers and X ray X ray equipment. And one piece of equipment that I quickly gravitated to was called a gas chromatograph, which basically takes mixtures and separates them out into their different parts so that you can analyze them. And it’s basically a combination between an oven And a gas mixing panel. And it’s a finicky instrument when it’s an older piece of equipment, you’re trying to pull it together. And that was where I started to learn how to maintain these things. And when I got to graduate school, I landed in a research group of 35 students, and there were six of these instruments scattered in different states of disarray around the lab. And I started working on them and started you know, pulling them together and getting them working. And, you know, suddenly your, as soon as you start working on one piece of equipment, you get it going word comes around that, hey, one of them’s fixed. Maybe the one that we’ve got can be taken care of if we reach out to this person. So I got very hands on with a lot of equipment very quickly in that environment.
Yeah, I’ve I’ve just been learning about you know, Field specifically over the last year. And I’m obviously only scratching the surface. But it just really blew me away. When I started to learn a bit about, you know how much these things cost, how much they’re meant to last. And like what an investment just like one piece of equipment is for a laboratory to so it was after hearing your story, it kind of makes a lot of sense that you can almost build a build a career, or at least really, really valuable skill in your network just by becoming an expert in them.
Right. It’s kind of, you know, everyone says that, it doesn’t matter how many tools you have, it’s how you know how to use them. And the analogy that always comes to mind for me is the story of the pile of step ladders. You can stack up as many step ladders in a pile as you want. But if you don’t, you’ll always feel like you don’t have enough to look over the wall and as opposed to properly use One step ladder, it can get you much higher than just piling them up. And I you see that a lot in analytical labs. I mean, I’ve walked into facilities before, I’d have literally millions of dollars worth of equipment spread out everywhere. But if you don’t know how to leverage, say, an HPLC for proper method development, most of the time the folks are working on cleaning it and try and get to trying to get it to function on its own. And that’s, to me one of the things in terms of career development that I’ve found. Understanding how to utilize this equipment has been probably the most valuable experience I’ve had so far. In career development, is teaching folks how to use the equipment how to use it safely, and how to use it to get reliable answers, for the analytical questions that really matter in business.
Interesting. So that’s a great segue. I think. I would love to talk a little bit about your endeavors teaching and leading and I really love to hear about, you know, you mentioned in our call that you would coach and volunteered on these students science competitions, and you work really hard to get youth more involved in science. What does that been like for you?
That has been arguably the most fun that I have ever had in terms of my science journey so far. It’s absolutely astounding. The when I started in at the university the first year I was there as a graduate student, I was called up as a grad student volunteer to work with the Science Olympiad, which is run through the American Chemical Society. And run through our department at the University of Connecticut, at least for the local chapter. And that was, you know, all well and good. And then a little while later, after that competition, I was invited to volunteer for the middle school Science Bowl, which is run by the Department of Energy. And the first year that I went there, we had a building set up on campus, and you come in on a Saturday morning at six o’clock in the morning, and by seven o’clock that building is filled with over 200 students and 300 parents, and you’re working with, you’re working with a staff of say 40 or 50 different volunteers and the setup for that volunteer event. It’s like a Jeopardy competition for these middle schoolers covering Earth Science and Mathematics and chemistry and physics and astronomy and all these incredible science. topics and these middle schoolers you go through and you have two teams of four. They compete in timed rounds, you know, answering questions. And I was volunteering as a as a moderator my first year because we could ask questions using scientific terms and I could actually pronounce die ribonucleic acid deoxyribonucleic acid, sorry. So, the, but it was incredible because the first few of these kids were interrupting me halfway through the question, because they were running vector calculus in their head.
That’s a positive sign.
Oh my god, it’s incredible. The and when the competitions get going, you have kids that are you no joking with one another. You have really tight competitions. Sometimes the high ends. And I have been volunteering now with that event. This last year was my ninth year. That’s awesome. And it, it’s been absolutely incredible. So this is something
we’re really committed to.
It’s something that I can say very clearly is one of the most positive, positive attributes of my volunteer experience. That’s great. And for science, education and youth these days. There needs to be an aspect of fun to it. Yeah, there’s lots of testing and everything on this sort of end. These types of competitions. When kids come in wearing t shirts, they’ve designed themselves and they’re, you know, running around and having a wonderful time. I can’t say it enough. So I not only advocate for events like this and science outreach, but I also advocate for folks that are both in industry and in their educational journey to really reach out to these events and volunteer a little bit of your time. And you’ll often find that not only is it just an absolute blast of an experience, but you also see stories sort of the relevance and some of the context of the types of science that you’re doing. And it’s, it’s oftentimes where I’m sitting up there with the rest of my team that are facilitating the events for a given room. And we’ll make note that the questions we’re asking these middle schoolers, some of the PhD candidates have difficulty answering Wow. And that is really the cool parts crazy. And it’s really astounding. Also, that’s something I really push for.
Yeah, I remember, you know, when I was in middle school and high school I attended a few of those. But obviously at that age, I didn’t really think about who was actually running them what it took to plan them and put them all together. But yeah, that’s that’s amazing thing and I’m happy to know that they’re still going strong and, and people like you are at the helm.
I’m not not at the helm. I’m actually just a volunteer Show. I’m one of the folks that read but the folks that are at the helm there that have been doing the logistics and organize the competition on the school scale. You have a few seasoned seasoned vets that have been doing it for just as many years as I have. And you have student volunteers that are, you know, college students that are jumping in and coordinating these incredible events. So it’s it’s absolutely astounding.
Cool. So just wrapping up a bit. Do you want to talk about your book at all? I know it’s kind of still in the works. So if you Don’t you want to wait for future time to reveal that? That’s fine, too?
Yeah. Well, we’re working on a, we’re working on a primer book for gas chromatography. The main goal of the book is to kind of be a reference tool for lab managers for students to kind of understand what capabilities this instrument has. And the idea is if you’re designing a designing a lab or you have an analytical question, and you’re trying to figure out you know that this is one of the techniques that can help but you’re focused on how do you prep samples, how do you pick them up and how do you get reliable data out of this, that’s mainly the book that we’re that we’re working on. So that’ll be that’s coming up. There’s been some, some outreach on it already on research gate, which I have a page on there. So you can open that up and take a look at some of the details. There. That’s probably coming up in the next few months. So we’re, we’re finished with most of the most of the content and figures. So right now it’s just getting getting wrapped up in a bow. Awesome.
Yeah, keep me posted on that one. I’m gonna do take a look and get a copy when that comes out.
Glad to hear it. Thank you.
Cool. So Kurt can be found on LinkedIn. Is there anything else that you want want people to know or want to tell people about on your end?
Feel free to reach out for anything in terms of analytical method development. I’m a member of several LinkedIn groups on there for different different resources for people. And as you are working in developing yourself as a scientist, as an engineer, or whatever it is, do utilize professional social media as well because the incredible skills And experiences that you are developing are great vehicles for communication and for developing your career. So,
yeah, I’d say that enough ditto to that too. I mean, you see on LinkedIn so many sales and marketing folks are there. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s amazing the conversations people are having the knowledge they’re sharing. But I think there’s a lot of room for science and and engineering folks to really get on there, get active start talking. And even if you don’t post just reaching out to people that interest you say, hey, do you want to have a phone call about something or discuss a project? That was Yeah, I mean, I think this podcast got set up and all of a day and a half, which is amazing. That’s how things work in 2020.
It’s absolutely incredible.
Yeah. And and to anyone who is interested in the analytical side of things like Kurt said, not gonna volunteer your time, but if Kurt’s a fantastic guy. And he was super friendly when I reached out, I’m sure. You know, I would go ahead and connect with him. All right. Thanks for coming on theshow.
Glad to be here. Thank you so much. All the best