By Jill Randolph
May 4, 2010
The following is an interview transcript with Dr. Larry Spears, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Houston-Downtown. Dr. Spears is a longtime Professor of Chemistry at UHD and was Chair of their Department of Natural Sciences for many years. He is the Co-Director of their Scholars Academy; Director of their Urban Center for Student Success in STEM; and, Executive Director of the Science Engineering Fair of Houston, which serves most of Southeast Texas.
UHD, established in 1974, is a public university in Houston, Texas and enrolls over 13,000 students each year. Among UHD's notable alumni are the famous boxer Juan Diaz, singer-songwriter Gary Helms, rapper Lil' O, and Wisconsin state assemblyman Phil Montgomery.
Jill Randolph: In the next five to ten years, do you think that any particular careers involving chemistry will become especially popular?
Dr. Larry Spears: It sounds egotistical to say, but the truth is that chemistry is pretty much the central science today. When one thinks about everything involving molecular biology with respect to genetics and drug development, it is all chemistry-based today. There is an old saying, "If you can touch it, it is chemistry," and that is still true. Therefore, chemistry is the essential science and that will be true in the future as well.
From a physical science perspective, the fields of nanoscience and nanoengineering will bring about major changes in the way we do many things. These fields will also involve novel new materials, both inorganic and organic, with unique performance characteristics and applications. I believe there will be a lot of emphasis placed upon advanced materials science and engineering, which will be much different than it is today.
Additionally, the whole field of molecular biology will become more important, whether it's coming up with a cure for a particular type of cancer, working around genetic defects, or similar endeavors.
Our knowledge of molecular biology is increasing exponentially, and we have related technologies that are being developed today that we don't yet have uses for. That's how fast certain areas are developing, however, it doesn't mean that there will not be a use for those technologies a few years from now.
For example, we had a scientist from Poland present a seminar recently, and he has developed a nanomotor that can be injected via syringe into almost any part of the human body. There is no use for his nanomotor yet, but he received a large grant from the European Union so that he can look for applications. This is unusual, but that's how fast new advanced technologies are being developed, especially in nano areas.
Nanotecnhnologies are being developed today that don't have applications, and that isn't the way research has normally worked in the past. Previously, when there was a need for innovation, science was utilized in order to come up with the technology needed to solve that particular issue. Today however, science is advancing so quickly in some areas that technologies are being developed for which there is no current use.
That's why it's so important for scientists to publish and make all this new information public. I presented a paper recently in an international meeting related to Nanochemistry, and the topic was also related to something that doesn't have a real application at the moment. I presented a potential application, and showed what might be done using this system, but that doesn't mean it is the best application. I showed one possibility, and a lot of other people at this meeting also presented new technology without existing end uses.
Jill Randolph: Do you think that in situations like this, having a network of people with different strengths becomes very valuable? It seems to me that this way, people from various backgrounds and areas of expertise can look at all of the variables objectively and present possible end uses, rather than from only one specific skill set.
Dr. Larry Spears: You have just described why networking is so valuable. It is especially true in science and technology, because these fields don't have any borders and people have common problems. People are dealing with systems that are very similar to each other, and networking is especially important when it comes to new technology.
Networking can help people and companies save a lot of time and money. It is especially important that students start networking as soon as they can and keep at it.
Jill Randolph: I believe current and future generations will have an easier time connecting because of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Students already have practice on social networking sites, they just need to leverage that practice into professional contacts as well.
Dr. Larry Spears: You are correct. We also offer an alumni association only for science and technology graduates. This is another easy way for students to be able to establish communication systems with people electronically.
Jill Randolph: Do you have specific advice for students regarding networking?
Dr. Larry Spears: It's very easy to establish networks electronically today, and students don't have to spend two or three hours a day in order to build and maintain their network. Every other day, they should be in contact and maintaining their network. They can talk about anything from professional issues, social issues, or even simply make casual conversation. A good network will help people when they hit rough spots and need support.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to high school students who want to be accepted into a college level chemistry program? How soon should they start working on their plan?
Dr. Larry Spears: I think students need to start working on their plan around seventh grade. In most good school systems, seventh grade is when students begin to decide on some of the classes they will take. They have to decide between taking an easy math course or a rigorous one, and between taking an easy science or a more difficult version. I think this is usually when people start splitting into two different tracks, and the sad thing is that students who aren't on the more rigorous track in seventh or eighth grade will most likely be behind once they get to high school.
Once this happens, trying to catch up becomes very difficult. The junior high level is where students need to take more rigorous courses to help develop their reading, analytical and verbal skills and so forth. I recommend students take the most difficult courses their particular school offers once they get to the junior high level.
Jill Randolph: Is the same is true for high school students?
Dr. Larry Spears: Yes, no question. If students don't start taking advanced classes at the junior high school level, they probably will be penalized in some way once they get to high school.
Jill Randolph: Do you recommend that high school students become involved in science fairs or other related competitive science events if they have aspirations of pursing a science in college?
Dr. Larry Spears: I definitely recommend competing to students whose schools offer recognized science fairs. For example, I work with a school located close to NASA here in Houston, and they have children starting science career competitions in kindergarten. So, at some schools, advanced programs like this may be available even for pre-elementary aged children.
If these students continue competing in science fairs, by the time they get to high school, they will have a very good understanding of how to do science and engineering, and as a result they are far better prepared in the classroom. What they've learned by competing isn't simply what is available in a book; they have a working understanding of science and engineering and how to relate this knowledge to real life.
The more children have a chance to learn and practice science, engineering and mathematics at an early age, the better off they will be in the future. They may find that they don't like these topics, but at least they will have tried and in the process learned what the Scientific Method is really about. People can watch all the films they want about how to play tennis, for example, but they won't really know if they like tennis or not until they start playing.
Jill Randolph: That is true, yes. The same can be said for students who think they want to become crime scene investigators because of "CSI" and similar shows. These shows might look really intriguing to students, but realistically, it will probably take them at least five years until they are allowed to work on the exciting cases like they see on TV.
Dr. Larry Spears: Yes, a lot of students are misled by CSI and similar shows. When students ask me to explain what a crime scene investigation really involves, some of them think it sounds boring because of all the science involved and the major attention to detailed observations and careful data collection.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to a student who is really interested in science but doesn't have access to a lot of high-tech tools because they live in a rural area?
Dr. Larry Spears: There are a lot of websites students can visit today that will improve their scope and allow them to see all of the different developments in the field. Most of the information is directed to high school students, but some is for elementary students also.
Students need to take advantage of all available resources. One doesn't need to have expensive tools to work with in order to do basic hands-on science. The process that students go through is the most important part. The project doesn't have to be complicated; what's important is how students approach the project's problems using the scientific method.
Jill Randolph: Do you have any specific books or websites related to chemistry or careers in chemistry that you recommend to your students?
Dr. Larry Spears: We developed a website as part of a grant we received from the U.S. Army Research Office about six years ago called HUNSTEM, which stands for the Houston Urban Network for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It includes a network for students who are interested in STEM-related fields where they can establish contact with professionals from the STEM community in the Houston area.
The site is also available to parents, teachers, professors and anyone who may benefit from the information. It includes a lot of facts about careers and helps connect students of any age to professional societies. The site can also help students who need assistance with their science or engineering projects. It's a central communication system related to STEM areas that people can refer to, and we recommend it to even the most serious students at the university level.
Jill Randolph: If a student wants to enroll in UHD's chemistry program, what do you recommend so that he or she will have the best chance of being accepted?
Dr. Larry Spears: In the State of Texas, we have what are called college preparatory high school degrees, which signify that students have had four years of college prep courses at the high school level. Students should also focus on gaining chemistry experience outside of the classroom, including completing projects for science fairs. I think students who go out of their way to compete are usually more serious students and thus more academically successful.
Learning difficult concepts and going out of one's way to compete in science fairs can be challenging, but anything worthwhile in life is challenging. Learning science is a process that can help people with a lot of other things, as science requires dealing with variables, and a lot of the complexities of life are associated with variables. The more inconsistencies associated with a particular situation, whether they are social or economic, the more complex the issues will be.
That's what the scientific method is really about; it's an organized process for asking questions and seeking answers for situations or systems involving multiple variables, and that is good training for any profession.
The scientific method is similar to most business curricula today, which follow the Herbert Model, with a focus on case studies. In case studies, the goal is to determine which variables are associated, how they interact with each other and which ones can be controlled in order to come up with a solution. That is what the scientific method is about. There are certain variables that can't be controlled, and that simply has to be recognized and dealt with.,/p>
Similarly, there are things performed in a laboratory today that couldn't be done thirty years ago, because of advances in technology. In the future, we will be able to do what we cannot today, and people will continue coming up with better technology-based solutions.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the two most important things students can do to prepare to find a job incorporating chemistry?
Dr. Larry Spears: The first thing students need is a comprehensive undergraduate degree in chemistry. It should involve a lot of hands-on use of advanced scientific equipment, as technology is changing very rapidly. It's important to new areas of chemistry such as nanotechnology and nanochemistry, and the type of equipment used for nano sciences is completely different than most equipment used 10 years ago.
Being able to adapt to advanced scientific equipment, regardless of what it's used for, is very important as well, as almost all equipment today is computer-based. That doesn't present problems to students, but it might introduce problems when it comes time to analyze data. Therefore, being able to have hands-on access to new and advanced scientific equipment is really important.
I also think that reading about both current and future applications of chemistry is important as well. That's tied to having chemistry experience outside of a normal classroom environment, specifically completing undergraduate research in chemistry. Research forces students to read about current areas in chemistry, and current fields will most likely tie into future studies and applications as well.
Undergraduate research usually involves preparing reports, or presenting information at technical meetings. The University of Houston-Downtown has funds set aside, which allow us to pay for the travel and registration expenses for students who have a paper or a project accepted at a major meeting. This way, all of our students, regardless of their financial circumstances, are able to present their recognized research findings in professional settings. As a result of this, we have approximately 40 students per year presenting papers. Some presentations are made at state meetings, but most are at the national level.
Most major societies have special sections for undergraduate and graduate students to present papers and posters, and these opportunities are great preparation for students, and facilitate finding a job in the chemistry field after graduation.
Like any job search, getting a job in the science field is competitive, and employers look at more than just the applicant's GPA. Employers also want to see what students were involved with outside of the classroom. The more experience that students gain, besides class work, to show that they are competent in their field, the better off they will be when applying for jobs.
Jill Randolph: For someone to progress in a chemistry-related field, do you think that advanced degrees make applicants more desirable?
Dr. Larry Spears: Yes, for those people interested in the business side of sciences, having a good undergraduate degree, perhaps with a broader base, is very beneficial. For example, I have a good friend who started off as a bench chemist in a refinery for one of the major oil companies. He eventually ended up as the vice-president for public relations, and from there became president of a spin-off company that this large company generated. My friend has good communication skills and is a hard worker, but he didn't have interest in being a research chemist. He is more interested in the business side, and I don't think his is an unusual case.
Research and development employees may need to have advanced degrees, but there are a lot of facets of the chemical industry besides research labs. I think that people working in chemistry-related fields need to have an understanding of chemistry in order to be successful, but they have to have other skills as well, which are more specific to their particular career interests.
Jill Randolph: Have you heard that soft skills are also an important asset to STEM careers?
Dr. Larry Spears: Yes, there is no question about that. People involved in the research and development department of most large companies tend to be fairly isolated from major changes in the organization. However, that is not necessarily true for employees providing specialized laboratory research, with a focus on a particular project.
Every day, companies decide to switch directions and then the people involved with discontinued projects or divisions may be laid off. The chances of layoffs these days are likely, and that's when networking becomes so valuable.
The basic principles of chemistry don't have company boundaries; they apply around the world, so keeping current with one's contacts is extremely valuable. There is never a 100 percent guarantee of job stability, so maintaining contacts and having a network to help with potential job leads is extremely important.
Jill Randolph: There are currently a lot of unemployed people applying to jobs for which they are overqualified. What do you recommend to students or recent graduates to help them to outshine the competition?
Dr. Larry Spears: What I tell students is that most companies usually prefer to hire a person who is less qualified. Normally, people who are overqualified for a position are not going to be very happy with their job, and they are going to be looking for other positions.
I think most good companies realize that they will be better served if they hire the younger person who is just starting his or her career, so that the new hire can learn that company's corporate culture, rather than having been influenced by previous roles.
Jill Randolph: For mid-career candidates looking to enter a field related to chemistry, do you offer certificate programs in order to help these people segue into the field quickly?
Dr. Larry Spears: Most universities don't offer special certificate programs, but most junior colleges do. There is a junior college here, for example, that offers a certificate program for wind and solar panel energy. If people are looking for a quick turnaround, junior college is usually the best option. These people need to understand, however, that a certificate won't give them a broad base from which to build. A certificate program is geared only towards a particular skill.
Jill Randolph: How have universities changed from the past?
Dr. Larry Spears: Most universities today put much more emphasis on the use of advanced technology, which is now associated with almost every profession. I also think that group or team activities in the classroom are extremely important today, and most universities are stressing that, especially at the junior and senior levels.
In addition, communication skills, both written and verbal, are extremely important, but they seem to be going by the wayside. Different methods of communication, such as texting, which don't involve using complete sentences and proper grammar, seem to be filtering into the classroom now.
Another common problem, especially in technical areas, is the lack of reading comprehension skills that students have today. Students spend very little time reading, and most don't even read a newspaper. People don't have time to read a lot of material about a topic, and instead they read condensed versions.
Students need to be aware that reading comprehension is at the top of the list of priorities for most good science and engineering schools, so they need to hone their skills before applying.
Jill Randolph: Do you think that some students lack of reading comprehension is in part due to all the technology they can access today, which can distract them from schoolwork?
Dr. Larry Spears: The issue here is usually not what students do in the classroom, but instead what they do when they get home from school, especially in major cities. Especially at the high school level, students need to be made aware that reading comprehension skills are extremely important. It's pretty hard to earn a good score on the SAT exam if a student doesn't have good reading comprehension skills. The bulk of that exam is based on reading comprehension, which is not something students can cram to learn. They can't simply take an online course and suddenly develop good reading comprehension skills; it's a process that begins during the time people start reading, and it's a skill they have to continually work on.
Jill Randolph: Do you think students are used to reading short bits of information, so that now they want to be able to read in quick bites, rather than having to read a long document and then determine what's important?
Dr. Larry Spears: Yes, there is a lot of truth to that. Textbooks today look much different than they used to. They used to mainly consist of written material, but that's no longer true. Now there are dozens of pictures and graphs, and extraneous sentences have been taken out. For any particular sentence in a textbook, every word has been chosen carefully in order to minimize the use of advanced words and keep people's attention.
However, if students are not reading, how will they obtain all the information they need? Not everything can be explained in small bits and with charts. For example, a book was recently published about nanotechnology chemistry, which is really interesting but very long. A few months after the book was published, the authors started working on the second edition. New information is coming out so quickly, they figure the book will be out-of-date in two years.
Jill Randolph: Do you think students prefer to read with a Kindle or something that is more portable than a textbook, or is the problem simply that they don't want to sit down and focus for long periods of time?
Dr. Larry Spears: I think that most students don't like to sit down and focus for extended time periods. For example, recently in class, I was trying to make a connection between Dan Brown and his book, The Da Vinci Code, and an event that had happened in Washington D.C. Only two students raised their hand when I asked how many recognized the title of the book, and from the rest, I received blank stares.
I don't think that many students are motivated to read today. They will read what they have to, or they try to. I am not sure how many students read books for fun. Also, there is far more written information online today than just a couple of years ago, which competes for students attention.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students so that they will be able to maintain a work-life balance once they start working full-time?
Dr. Larry Spears: People in this field tend to be more organized than most, so I think they need to have regularly planned leisure activities. They need to set aside time for themselves even if it's only two times a week. Activities involving exercise are really important, as they help clear the mind up and keep circulation going, which keeps the mind mentally alert.
People watch their computer screen too much as it is, and to go home and watch another screen, to me, is not a good leisurely activity. I also think using vacation to do leisurely activities instead of doing work around the house or something similar is very important as well. In addition, people need to have work goals as well as non-work goals.