In this Q&A style interview, we hear from Penn State chemistry alumna Paula Hietpas who discusses her graduate school experiences and how her background in chemistry impacted her wide-ranging career from bench work to corporate industry. Hietpas recently visited Penn State University Park to speak with chemistry students in the Eberly College of Science as part of the Harold Kohn Endowed Distinguished Chemistry Alumni Series. She gave a talk on career development and offered tips for new graduates.
Q: What made you decide on Penn State, and was chemistry always your intended area of study?
A: I was really interested in forensic science as a career. I looked for graduate programs in this field and couldn’t find any that suited me. However, in addition, I also had an interest in analytical chemistry and instrumentation. I applied to Penn State’s chemistry program, and my future adviser was head of the admissions team. During my visit he mentioned setting up a DNA separation system based on his analytical chemistry research using capillary electrophoresis, and he supported my interest in forensics. Even though my visit to campus was a bit of nightmare (blizzard in Chicago, rerouted through Philly then Pittsburgh, then freezing temperatures in State College), I still knew that Penn State was the place for me.
Q: What specifically got you interested in analytical chemistry as applied to forensics?
A: My father is an attorney who specialized in cases involving arson insurance fraud. I envisioned a career spent testing evidence in the lab and then testifying about the results in criminal cases. The field was not as popular as it is now, and much of the cutting-edge science was being done in universities.
Q: Was there someone within the chemistry department who had a positive impact on you during your time here?
A: My adviser, Andy Ewing (former Penn State professor of chemistry and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Natural Sciences) was open to entering the DNA separation space as a research avenue. He also created a course on forensic science during my time as a graduate student.
Q: Did you find difficulties in the transition between graduate school and career?
A: Not really, but I was fortunate that my husband and I were both hired by DuPont at the same time, so we were entering the workforce together. Going from a fully flexible schedule to an 8-to-5 day was a bit of an adjustment, but these days flexible schedules are the norm.
Q: What resources were most helpful to you when searching and applying for job opportunities?
A: Penn State's Career Sponsors Day was how I started my career. I interviewed with DuPont during the event and was brought on site for an interview.
Q: You have had a wide-ranging career: beginning as a bench chemist in the multinational chemical company DuPont, transitioning into corporate work like managerial and director positions for DuPont and The Chemours Co., and now your current position, associate vice president of research and development, chemistries and supplies for Agilent Technologies. How has your background as a bench chemist impacted your corporate work? What knowledge from the bench could you apply to your current job?
A: I started with DuPont as an R&D chemist in the Dacron polyester business, working on transitioning to a new catalyst for the polymerization process. This was a far cry from my Ph.D. work on DNA separations. I knew that I had a lot to learn, and I needed to do it as quickly as possible. Just like graduate school, I started with the technical library and then asked questions from the most senior members of the team. I was located at a manufacturing site and was able to sit with the control room operators during experiments; I was able to get their feedback and thoughts on the work, as well. Within a few months, I presented a poster on the project at our internal technical meeting.
Through this experience, I learned the importance of establishing technical credibility in a new role. I wasn’t expected to be an expert overnight, but I was expected to absorb information quickly and actively participate in project meetings. Successful projects require alignment from multiple functions, not just R&D, so it’s important to establish good connections with colleagues in other functions. I found that I was very interested in the business side of the project, how it would benefit customers or operators, and how we would make money from it. As I moved through my career, I found that establishing credibility, securing functional alignment, and understanding the business are foundational to every role.
Q: Is there anything you miss most about working directly in a lab?
A: I still consider myself to be a scientist at heart and miss the thrill when a challenging experiment “works” after a few failures, or a new insight is found buried in the data.
Q: What three pieces of advice can you offer to current graduate students who are interested in a career in the corporate industry?
A: One: When preparing for interviews, understand the impact of your graduate work and be ready to explain it. What is the benefit to the world? Sometimes this means thinking multiple steps down the line from your current work, but it demonstrates an ability to think broadly.
Two: Be persistent in your efforts to secure that first role. Penn State has prepared you well, but you should also recognize that developing interviewing skills maximizes your chances.
Three: Try to be flexible as you consider opportunities. It is rare to secure your dream job right out of school. I’d argue you probably don’t know what your dream job is yet. If you find a company that is a good fit for you and they offer you a suitable role, take it even if the location isn’t ideal. It’s much easier to move internally once you’ve demonstrated the value that you can bring to the company.
Q: You were recently invited back to the Penn State chemistry department as one of our selected speakers for the Harold Kohn Endowed Distinguished Alumni Lectureship. What was it like to come back and share your career story with current chemistry graduate students?
A: It was amazing! As I mentioned during my talk, I love Penn State and have been an active part of both undergraduate and graduate recruiting over the last 10 years. I informally titled my talk “What I Wish I Knew in Graduate School,” and that was my focus. As expected, the chemistry students asked great questions about corporate careers and how to get started. The event was even more meaningful to me since my daughter, a 2023 Penn State graduate, was in the audience.
Q: Lastly, what is your favorite memory as a Penn State chemistry student?
A: I vividly remember my seminar presentation. My topic was analytical techniques in forensic science, and there was a packed house. I was very well prepared by my research group, but there were a few topics on my slides that I was a bit squeamish to discuss. Leave it to my future husband’s roommate to ask questions about sensitive topics. I had no choice but to explain and move on. I really learned a lot about how I perform under pressure that day!
Other fond memories include football games, Creamery runs, a blizzard party, and intramural softball championships by the chemistry department team!