Dr. Jennifer Holmgren

    November 2004:

    Jennifer HolmgrenJennifer Holmgren is Director of Exploratory and Fundamental Research at UOP LLC.  The Exploratory and Fundamentals Department sponsors programs that provide the tools, methods, and skills necessary to support UOP's project portfolio as well as programs which take UOP in new directions.  She is also directly accountable for three of UOP's core groups: New Materials Synthesis, Advanced Characterization and Combinatorial Chemistry.  Combinatorial chemistry is one of the most significant programs that Jennifer has cultivated at UOP; the critical technology for this program was developed in collaboration with SINTEF (the Norwegian independent research foundation) and Novodynamics, Inc. (NDI), Striatus, Inc., and was partially funded by NIST's Advanced Technology Program (ATP).  UOP has commercialized the first heterogeneous catalyst invented using combinatorial chemistry.  It is PI-242 and is successfully running in 2 commercial units.  Concurrent with her job responsibilities, Jennifer is enrolled in the Executive MBA Program at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business.

    Jennifer became interested in chemistry in high school.  She had been fascinated by science and had already developed an interest in science by reading newspaper accounts of the U.S. space program as a preteen living in Colombia.  Her high school chemistry teacher provided the impetus.  She loves chemistry and is excited about her work.  She is the oldest of three children.  The family came to the U.S. when her father, a skilled aircraft mechanic employed by Avianca, the Colombian airline, took a new assignment.  Her mother was a homemaker and worked odd jobs, such as the night shift at the Avianca counter, thus starting a career in the travel industry.  Her parents valued education and encouraged Jennifer to develop her interests and skills.  One brother is an accountant, another a computer scientist.

    Jennifer received a B.Sc. in Chemistry from Harvey Mudd College (1981) in Claremont California.  A day before she was graduated, Jennifer married Donald Holmgren, now a physicist at the Fermi National Laboratory.  Both received the Ph.D. degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Jennifer in Inorganic Materials Synthesis (1986).  Her thesis is "The Chemistry of Triruthenium Hydrocarbyls".  Then she chose a Post Doctoral appointment at the university as her husband was completing his degree.  Her work in NMR Characterization of Sol-gel Derived Ceramics enabled her to be hired in the new materials group at UOP LLC (1987).  Jennifer chose industrial employment because she wanted to use chemistry to impact daily lives by commercializing a technology.

    Her assignments at UOP have included the preparation and characterization of novel zeolites, molecular sieves and layered materials (clays, pillared clays and layered double hydroxides).  In addition she was responsible for the development of microactivity tests for the characterization of novel materials and setting up the infrastructure necessary to develop fundamental mechanistic understanding in UOP's core areas.  She also participated on a number of Technology Delivery projects in the BTX (Benzene, Toluene and Xylenes) and Olefins areas.

    She was a member of the R&D Reengineering Design Team, which redefined UOP's technology commercialization methodology.  She was the first Chair of the R&D Technical Community Organization.  She is the author or co-author of 50 US patents, 20 scientific publications and is the 2003 recipient of the Council for Chemical Research's (CCR) Malcolm E. Pruitt Award for pioneering work in establishing combinatorial chemistry techniques, particularly for her successful efforts to extend UOP's external collaborations in research through a NIST ATP grant.  These collaborations brought together a consortium of academic and industry partners to create a robust technology platform.  By this Jennifer has become a recognized leader in the fields of heterogeneous catalysis and combinatorial chemistry.  Jennifer is the first woman to receive the Pruitt Award.

    Jennifer attributes her technical successes to her key mentors: her high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Green; her undergraduate thesis advisor, Professor Kubota; her graduate advisor, Professor Shapley; and, Dr. Stan Gembicki, the Vice-President of Research and Technology at UOP, who counseled her on how to best develop a vision for technology growth and an environment under which technology could flourish.  Jennifer would like to be identified as someone who created change: either change in the way we do chemical R&D or how we select the problems we research.

    Her spare time activities include walking the family dogs, a Rottweiler mix and a Dalmatian, obtained from a local shelter.  She also enjoys hiking, reading and playing pinball.

    Jennifer Holmgren's comments on careers in the chemical sciences:

    * What advice would you give a student contemplating chemistry as a career?
    Do it.  I think there are exciting times ahead for chemists.  I think that chemists and chemical engineers will contribute a great deal to creating a sustainable energy future, which I believe is the next big technical challenge of our times.

    * What career building blocks are important?  What does one need to do to be effective?
    Make sure you don't neglect the soft side of your education.  I think that science is important but you need to do more than that -- you need to really learn to communicate (that includes written and verbal).  I loved reading literature and poetry as much as I loved science.  I would not have chosen one of those as a career (perhaps that means I loved science more) but I would have been a very different person if I hadn't had the opportunity to explore learning outside of my chosen fields.  I went to school at Harvey Mudd College, which required us to minor in a social science.  So I minored in linguistics.   I feel that a well-rounded education will serve you more in life than one that focuses you on your career choice alone.

    * Is "good science" sufficient to succeed in a chemistry career? 
    No.  I think you need to be able to communicate.  This is critical to get funding to pursue your ideas.  Another critical component is teamwork.   Teamwork now extends through collaborations (which are becoming more and more critical) to people outside of your company.

    * What are the emerging career issues for chemical scientists?
    I think the biggest issue is the erosion of the support for chemistry as a field.  I think organizations are doing less R&D and therefore there is less of a need for chemists and less interesting career paths for the chemists that remain.  I think that will change.

    * Has the quality of incoming chemical scientists changed? 
    No, there are still good (great) people coming in. 

    * What do you use to decide whether to hire a chemist?

    Most critical are ability to think on your feet and depth of technical knowledge.  We also look for people that can communicate and get along with others.

    * Do you miss laboratory hands-on work?  How do you compensate for that? 
    I do miss lab work.  I remember driving in to work wondering if my syntheses had been successful (I opened Parr Reactors early in the morning).  I also enjoyed solving technical problems.  Usually when you are doing technology/lab work you can complete a task and feel as if you have accomplished something.   Outside of the lab- my role is not as task oriented and I work on open-ended activities.  It is much harder to feel that you have contributed or "accomplished" something in that environment.  Perhaps over a long period (5-10 years) you can see the progress and the impact you are having but certainly not in the near term.  One of my friends told me once that I have incredible patience; that's interesting because I approach things with tremendous urgency.  But I think the comment reflects that I have a vision of what I want to accomplish and that vision is a 5-10 year plan.  So I can take the daily defeats as long as I can see the overall fabric coming together the way I want it to over the longer period.

    * Other issues/comments? Personal factors to consider. 
    It is very important to seek and listen to advice and consider the possibilities; but the responsibility for decision-making remains with the individual.  When picking a career, remember that you are going to spend 30+ years, 8+ hours per day on this.  Pick something you love and are going to get excited about, every day.