A year after graduating from Bowdoin, Alex Peroff ’08 enrolled as a graduate student at Northwestern University, where he gained a PhD in chemistry. He now works for Pine Research Instrumentation, which supplies equipment to the scientific research community. He recently returned to campus to talk about his post-Bowdoin career, both academic and commercial.
My graduate work involved studying the fundamental mechanism behind carbon dioxide reduction. To be clear, this does not mean actually getting rid of CO2, but chemically converting it to a useful hydrocarbon fuel that we can use. The idea of perfecting a “carbon capture” technique and then using CO2 as a “feedstock” to make fuel, is something that scientists are researching at the moment, because of the issues surrounding climate change and growing energy demands. But it’s a controversial area and a lot of that controversy stems from reliability issues and the risk of contamination. Let’s say you’re trying to convert carbon dioxide into methanol and the experiment is being conducted inside a metal reactor. Because carbon is everywhere, there could be some organic residue inside the reactor that could generate hydrocarbon fuels, but wouldn’t be the result of CO2 reduction. This could invalidate the results of the experiment, and any future experiments that are based on those results. It remains a hotly debated topic among research scientists.
I now work in the private sector, where I help other people solve their research problems. Some of the problems I work on involve CO2 reduction, but I also work on renewable energy issues like fuel cells, water electrolysis or hydrogen economy. There are some major differences between working as a sales scientist in the private sector and working in academe. Although it may sound surprising, private sector hours are typically shorter. As an academic researcher you can find yourself in the lab at all hours working on your project. Even when you are home, you still think about your work or read papers related to the field. In the commercial world you just tend to work more of a 9-to-5 schedule, then you go home and switch off. I also have to be more aware of how I use my time. Outside academe you develop a different perspective on what things cost, including your working hours. Salaries tend to be higher in the commercial sector and every hour I work costs money. As a result I try and use my time in the most effective way possible.
For chemistry majors considering a career in industry, I have three pieces of advice. First, everybody works hard and everybody’s smart, so you have to differentiate yourself by being creative, as well as confident. Go beyond what’s expected of you, and this leads to my second point: Try as many activities as possible while you’re a student, things you may enjoy doing but that also could be of some benefit to an employer. For example, when I had my interview at Pine, they were very interested in the fact that I had learned how to make YouTube videos! It was a useful additional skill that other people didn’t tend to have and it has become a useful asset to my company. My third piece of advice is to be patient. Whether you have a job or not, stay focused and work steadily toward your goals. Don’t expect an immediate meteoric rise up the career ladder. When you look at anyone who has achieved success in their field they didn’t do it overnight. It took patience, and years of steadily working toward a predetermined goal they set for themselves. You tend to do better in a class when you study for a class a little bit at a time over the course of a semester, rather than cramming at the last minute. The same concept applies to life. It will pay off.
My Bowdoin education definitely helped me by spurring my creativity. I was a chemistry major but I took a lot of different classes and developed a curious mind. Professors didn’t just teach us the material, they encouraged us to question it. This is especially important in science, where you don’t want to memorize, for example, an equation. You want to understand the fundamentals of the equation—the “why” as well as the “what.” How can new discoveries and new technologies come along if we never question anything?