Emma Olson

Emma Olson

Track: Molecular Probes and Sensors
Undergrad: Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA - Chemistry
Internship: Knight Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research Center (CEDAR), Oregon Health & Science University
Current Job Title: Lab Chemist, Firmenich

I was a part of the inaugural year of the Molecular Sensors and Probes track in 2019, and I’m currently working in Newark, New Jersey.

When I first learned about the program, I was most intrigued by the emphasis on skills and concepts that are valued by industry. As someone who did not see myself pursuing a career in academia, I appreciated that I would be able to spend a large portion of my time in the program getting hands-on experience during labs and my internship. I also have undergraduate research experience in the molecular sensors field, so I was excited that I could expand my knowledge on that subject and turn it into a career.

The intensive summer curriculum was just that, intensive. Completing the coursework was essentially like having a full-time job. However, I never felt like it impeded on my personal life. I was able to spend lots of time with my friends enjoying Eugene and exploring Oregon. It was also comforting to know that my friends were in the same situation, so they understood if I needed to take some time on the weekend to finish homework or study for an exam. Most of the time we ended up doing our work together, so even homework was (somewhat) enjoyable.
After finishing my summer coursework I started by internship at the Knight Cancer Research Institute with the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research (CEDAR) group located in Portland. This group specializes in creating diagnostic technology to detect cancer as early as possible. There is also an emphasis on making technology that is non-invasive and that could be done at a primary care office, making cancer testing simpler and more accessible.

I feel like my responsibilities as an intern were fairly similar to those of a full-time research associate. I was given a lot of independence regarding my work, and my team trusted me to make the day-to-day decisions about my project. The majority of my days were spent in the lab conducting experiments and collecting and processing data. One thing I do think was unique to my position as an intern was that I was allowed to participate in all aspects of my project, not just the ones I was “assigned” to. This allowed me to explore the many facets of cancer research and gave me insight into what research areas I could potentially focus on in my future career.

Overall, I believe that the program prepared me very well for my internship in many ways. For example, cancer research involves a lot of biology knowledge, which was an area that I had little experience in during my undergraduate education. Because the program curriculum was in touch with what subjects were relevant to the industry, I was able to build a base of biology knowledge that allowed me to excel in my internship. Additionally, I was able to build professional skills like interview techniques, networking, and digital communication through the professional development course.

My internship experience prepared me to enter the chemistry industry in many ways, but the most impactful was by exposing me to the “business” side of scientific research. Although I had been able to do undergraduate research, I was mostly detached from the administrative responsibilities of working in a lab. During my internship I was given responsibilities related to basic lab operations, such as ordering supplies and writing business reports, and I have been able to carry these skills with me as I transitioned into my new job.

Currently I’m employed as an associate scientist at Firmenich Inc. in Newark, New Jersey. Firmenich is a chemicals company specializing in flavors and fragrance, ranging from designer perfumes to scented cleaning products to alternative meat flavorings. My role specifically focuses on process chemistry, meaning that I work to improve pre-established synthetic procedures by making them more efficient, more productive, and less wasteful.

One of my favorite things about Firmenich is the company’s commitment to sustainability. There is a major focus on utilizing green chemistry techniques and sustainably sourcing natural ingredients. Amongst the many accolades Firmenich has received for their sustainability efforts, they are one of only six companies worldwide to achieve a Carbon Disclosure Project triple “A” status for Climate Change, Water, and Forest sustainability efforts. They are dedicated in their commitment to fight climate change and are on track to be carbon neutral by 2025.

My career as a chemist has taken many twists and turns since it began. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to work in many areas of the chemistry industry, which has allowed me to figure out what career path may be best for me. For example, I’ve learned that I feel the most fulfilled when I’m able to spend a large portion of my time in the lab doing hands-on chemistry, something that I’m able to do in my current position. The program allowed me to realize that a career in industry can be fast-paced and dynamic. There are so many opportunities to do cutting-edge research and each day brings a different challenge. I can’t wait to see how my career will evolve throughout my lifetime.