Using Chemistry to Solve Problems
By Sarah Stone
When something goes wrong, Em Lichtenberger is at their best.
“My department is what I like to consider the emergency room of the technical side of the company,” Lichtenberger, who works as a scientist III for Parker Lord, says. “If something goes wrong with any of our products along the process, whether it’s in the lab when they’re researching, or even if it’s over at a customer’s facility, the members of my team are usually the first people that will see it.”
Parker Lord is an internationally recognized technology and manufacturing powerhouse, with employees in more than 25 countries. They play a big role in the expanding electric vehicle market; the materials they create are used with those cars’ batteries for thermal management.
Lichtenberger’s efforts minimize costs and keep production moving. They say the knowledge they gained from two degrees from the Wilson College of Textiles makes this possible.
“I can probably think of how every course at some point helps me in this job,” Lichtenberger, who holds both a Bachelor of Science in polymer and color chemistry (PCC) and a Ph.D. in fiber and polymer sciences (FPS), says. “I actually still have my PCC notes at my desk that I still use.”
In their role overseeing analytical sciences, Lichtenberger says their job is best broken down into four types of day-to-day responsibilities:
- Lab and instrument management
- Serving as a chromatography and spectroscopy expert: “Basically, I’m a separation scientist. I separate stuff and then I let them know what it is.”
- Client requests
- Developing methods for testing and troubleshooting
It’s this last responsibility that Lichtenberger finds most exciting.
“Any time an analysis goes well, or a new method that I’ve planned with my team, anytime that works out — those are the best moments ever,” Lichtenberger says.
A delayed passion for research
As they began their college search, Lichtenberger knew they wanted to pursue chemistry. The smaller class sizes and specification in textiles made the idea of a degree in chemistry seem less theoretical.
Lichtenberger didn’t develop a passion for research until their senior year at the Wilson College.
“Originally, research terrified me. The idea of finding a novel concept just seemed so difficult to me,” they remember thinking. “But that was just because I didn’t understand the process.”
However, nearing graduation without a solid idea of what they wanted to do next inspired Lichtenberger to face their fears. They enrolled in PCC 490, an independent study research course. Their experience researching with Associate Professor Nelson Vinueza made them realize that a doctoral degree would be the perfect next step.
Investigating crimes with chemistry
True crime television has always fascinated Lichtenberger, so it’s no surprise that they leveraged their dissertation to make new discoveries in forensic science.
Under the direction of Dr. Vinueza, Lichtenberger used swabs and microliter volumes of different solvents to investigate when drugs of abuse could be detected.
These small measurements and samples are key in the world of forensics.
“One of the most challenging aspects of forensic science is that investigators usually have only a small amount of evidence,” Lichtenberger explains. “So one of the things Dr. Vinueza and I were trying to capitalize on was, if you have a small amount of evidence, how can you get as much information as possible from it?”
Inclusion in the Corporate World
Leaving academia for the corporate world, Lichtenberger says they were most concerned about how they would factor in as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
“The chemistry industry itself is, I would say, one of the ones that are lagging with some of the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion,” they say. “There’s a stigma of, ‘I don’t see myself out there, so I don’t know if I can have a career in this field.’”
However, Lichtenberger says they’ve found community and acceptance at Parker Lord through support from the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee.
“I’ve learned to embrace myself in the workplace. It’s definitely changed my mindset a lot about the corporate world. I used to think it was unchangeable, but now I can see that it can definitely change.”
They encourage current students to participate in any available career fairs and networking opportunities to make connections and learn about the workplace culture for themselves.
“You get to interact with them. You get to hear about the company from the perspective of current employees,” they say. “An industry panel at NC State is how I got all the information about Parker Lord and is pretty much how I landed the job.”