It is not uncommon for scientists to jump from academia to industry. It is far less common for a scientist to go from working with one of the most expensive materials, diamond, to what could be considered the most valuable material of all, DNA. Yet, Femke de Theije (pictured left) has done precisely that. She spoke to Next Wave from her wet lab at the Dutch company Philips about a range of issues, including the careful treatment of diamond, academic and industrial research, and luxury.
De Theije now works as a senior researcher at Philips, which has long been known all over the world for its light bulbs, liquid-crystal displays, and televisions. Philips has recently extended its focus to biological equipment, among other types, for use in health care. De Theije, who initially was trained as a chemist, fits perfectly into the new corporate strategy. Her current project focuses on developing magnetic-based sensors for biomedical diagnostics.
Since she joined Philips in 2001, De Theije has worked on the chemical properties of different materials, from insulators to semiconductors. Her projects have nothing in common but the chemical techniques she uses, so before each project, she takes about 6 months to get a "feeling" for the material. She gets up to speed with the literature, talks to experts, and carries out initial experiments to reveal the chemical properties of the material and to get a hint of its functional characteristics and possible applications. Adapting to a new project is not hard, she says, "as long as you change subjects often enough." And a big company such as Philips allows her to do so.
De Theije doesn't see much of what are generally perceived as major drawbacks in industrial research: a patent-driven environment and lack of research independence. Of course, research at Philips is geared toward industrial applications, but that doesn't mean that she is restricted to strict research lines. The variety of her work experience is accentuated by the diversity of the 15 members of her research group; it includes seven permanent staff members, among them physicists, chemists, and engineers in electronics and plastics. Indeed, the diversity is so great that in the beginning, it was difficult for De Theije to understand what the other group members were doing. "Sometimes, I didn't know what they were talking about," she says. Now, she's over that, having learned on the job how to collaborate with her colleagues.
To De Theije, there is more to working in industry than having a permanent contract. She sees the surrounding conditions as better in industry than in academia: There's a lot of support from other research groups, ordered chemicals and equipment actually come in time, and the help desk is actually able to help--in short, luxury all around.
Working With Diamonds
Before she joined industry, De Theije was on her way to becoming an expert in growing diamonds. She was awarded her master of science (M.Sc.) degree in chemistry at Nijmegen University in 1996; the curriculum included research training at the Solid State Physics group. There, she spent a year looking at polycrystalline layers of diamond, analysing its chemical properties. As a result of this experience, she concluded that a career in science was right for her. "And then, you only have one choice," she says: to do a Ph.D.
De Theije decided to accept a Ph.D. position studying diamond at the Solid State Chemistry group. Even though both her M.Sc. and Ph.D. research projects focused on the fundamental analysis of diamond properties, her daily activities were different. Although she spent most of her M.Sc. training in the lab, only 5% of her Ph.D. time was actually devoted to chemical experiments; her aim was to determine the influence of nitrogen and oxygen on the growth and etching of diamonds, which required a lot of computer-simulation studies. The only reason for her to be in the lab during her Ph.D. was to validate the models she developed.
De Theije stresses that the high price of diamond calls for some extra care when using it in experiments. "You can't just do whatever," she says. She thoroughly prepared the setup and accurately predicted the correct parameters before she started any of her experiments. Yet, she wouldn't say that she felt extra pressure during her project: "I don't think I worked much differently from any other Ph.D. student."
Working with diamonds has one great advantage, De Theije explains: "Any result you obtain is publishable." Not many people do fundamental research on diamond--her group is the only one in the Netherlands--so any growth characteristic she found, positive or negative, was good enough for publication. The typical "AiO dip"--as Dutch researchers call the period during which a Ph.D. student experiences a major drought in obtaining results--has never been an issue for her. She remembers having had a hard time twice when she "spent half a day on the lab floor searching for some of my precious diamonds," De Theije says, "but that's about it."
Within the restrictions given by the material she used, De Theije was granted independence in her research, which she experienced as highly positive. "I sometimes heard stories about tyrannical supervisors from other Ph.D. students," she says, "but luckily I had a good one." This freedom allowed her research to go in a different direction than the one originally intended. "If I read the original project description now," De Theije says, "there's hardly anything in it that is covered in my thesis."
After she was awarded her Ph.D. in 2001, De Theije didn't see many possibilities to stay in academia. "It's hard to get a permanent position," she says. She didn't want to live in insecurity for another 10 years, doing a series of postdocs while preparing and waiting for a permanent position. So she decided to switch to industrial research. She applied for a research position at Philips and got the offer. "At that time, the [specific] area of [your] research wasn't of much interest to Philips," she explains, "as long as you had finished a fruitful Ph.D. period."
Nowadays, Philips is looking more for people with a Ph.D. in a relevant field, De Theije notes. She would advise young chemists who think of going into materials science to consider carefully the research group to which they apply for their Ph.D. "You should definitely not choose a theoretical research topic," she says, to show that experience in applicative chemistry research gives you a head start in materials science, "and it helps if your professor is known in the field."
De Theije knows that a career at Philips generally means a move to a management position after 5 to 8 years of lab experience, but she doesn't know whether that will be her next step: She really likes being at the bench. Back to academia, then? "I really don't have a clue," says De Theije.