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Science Careers: Interview with Andrew Dallas

Name: Andrew Dallas
Current employer: Donaldson Co., Inc.
Job title: Corporate Fellow/Scientist
Science Career: Chemist / Science Manager
Time working in this field: 25+ years

How would you describe what you do to a person on the street?

I think part of the beauty of science for me is that I rarely know exactly what my day will involve. Since I direct a group of scientists doing research into the fundamentals of filtration, much of my day is spent interacting with my team, discussing data and technical issues. I do spend some of my day in the lab either working on my own experiments or reviewing the progress of other scientists. The scientists that work for me usually spend most of their day working the lab; however, about 40-50% of my day is typically consumed with meetings, updates, presentations, and administrative tasks (emails, project tracking, etc.). The rest of the day is filled with trying to stay abreast of new technology and the technical literature.

How did you become interested in this area of science?

From a young age I was always interested in math and how things worked. My passion for golf fueled these interests and led me to want to understand more about physics. Going into college, I thought I was going to be an engineer and actually enrolled as a mechanical engineer. However, my initial classes in chemistry came easy and allowed me to spend more time on the golf course than I probably should have. So I continued to take chemistry courses, and my interest in material properties and surface chemistry developed. For some reason or another, still as an undergraduate, I took a graduate level course in separations and filtration. I didn't do that well in the class; however, it gave me some insight into how to mix chemistry with my interest in how things worked. This experience sparked my interest to want to learn more about chemistry, so I looked for a graduate program that specialized in chemistry, separations, and filtration.

What did you study in high school, college, and graduate school?

In high school, I focused on taking the most challenging course load I could. This included all of the science and math classes that were available. My high school did not have AP courses; however, after seeing my three kids go through them, I would recommend that everyone try and take all of them. The rigor forces one to think critically. My undergraduate work focused on chemistry and my doctorate is in analytical chemistry.

How would you describe your work environment to a student?

My team spends much of their day in a collaborative laboratory environment that is fun, rewarding, and challenging. Many of us have developed good friendships simply by working together towards a common technical goal. This common thread has created a technical team environment where it is safe to be wrong most of the time. However, we also all share the desire to solve the problem, develop the best technology, and eventually to be right.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

There are three characteristics that will help a person succeed in the sciences:

  1. Having a passion to solve challenging problems.
  2. A personality that is not scared of being wrong and is driven to want to know the answer or solve the problem they are faced with.
  3. Possessing an ability and desire to collaborate with other scientists.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?

Since nearly everything I work on is scientifically challenging and fundamental to our business, I am constantly inspired and driven to learn something new. I also really enjoy having the opportunity to direct the work of a highly technical team and strategize about project and product directions. To me, this is similar to the things a coach of a sports team has to deal with on and off the field. These things get me into work every morning and make my job fun and rewarding.

I dislike that many of the top scientists in industry are lost to business and management roles since it typically appears to them that this is the only way to succeed and grow within a company. I find this to be more of an issue for our younger generation of scientists. I wish I could change this perception with our entry level scientists and the companies for which they work.

What was a project that you have worked on that you found particularly interesting?

Extending the working life of hard disk drive (HDD) data storage devices has only been possible through the ability to control the cleanliness of the internal HDD environment. My team was involved in developing several of the filtration solutions for problematic contaminants. It was very rewarding to find these filtration solutions that eventually made it into millions of HDD products around the world every year. An example, for those of you that may still have one or remember, is the Apple iPod Classic that contained an HDD. These data storage systems typically contained two or three separate filters.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field in terms of coursework and extracurricular activities?

Obviously, making sure you are always challenging yourself in your coursework and focusing on a breadth of scientific knowledge is always important. However, I would not worry so much about grades and rewards but would definitely focus on making sure you are learning the fundamentals of each subject area.

I don't believe it is critical to be involved in any specific type of extracurricular activity. It is more important to be involved and to ask yourself the deeper questions about what you do every day. Don't just take baking a cake, hitting a golf ball, skiing, or even swimming for granted. Wonder and ask what is really happening and what affects the outcome. Asking the important questions and thinking about the solution is what makes our field fun and challenging.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

Two pieces of advice I wish I would have really listened to and applied more than I did:

  1. Math and physics are the basis for all science. Focus as much as you can on these subjects. I tended to focus on chemistry through college, and as result I have found myself having to continue to go back and brush up on my math and physics in order to get a deeper understanding of a problem or solution.
  2. The fun in a science career really grows as you move forward in your career. Focusing on a solid foundation and ensuring you are solid in the fundamentals of all basic science area is critical to becoming an exceptional scientist. So do not be disillusioned by the fact that early on it may not seem "fun."

Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?

It is a misconception that all scientists are nerds; from my experience, most of us are pretty cool people that are interesting and fun to interact with. Furthermore, many of us have a great sense of humor, which tends to makes our work environment enjoyable and a fun place to go every day.

Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student? What was your experience like?

I never did, but I did help my three kids through several science fair events. My experience was very rewarding and hopefully also for my children who have all chosen to have careers in science-related fields. It was very eye opening to observe how more open minded younger generations are to a breadth of solutions, relative to scientists of my generation.

What do you do in your free time?

Gardening, golf, fly fishing, reading, coaching/mentoring, and innovation.

Free science fair projects.