Working between fundamental and applied science

An interview with Dr. Martin Donakowski

Every day is different and full of the fundamental chemistry that I love coupled with real-world devices, materials and consequences.

– Dr. Martin Donakowski

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Dr. Martin Donakowski was one of the 2013 winners of the Reaxys PhD Prize. Since graduating with a PhD from Northwestern University in 2014, he’s had a varied and interesting career, moving from academia to a government lab, then to a startup company, and finally into consulting. His field is material science, and he’s currently employing chemistry to evaluate battery cells that have failed — such as when they generate fires or die prematurely — and to evaluate devices to increase battery charge capabilities and to prevent future battery failures. In addition to his research work, he was previously an elected chair and council representative for the American Crystallographic Association, a function that tied into his deep belief that research doesn’t exist if it isn’t communicated.

He took time out of a very busy schedule to meet and share some insights into his career and the role of the Reaxys PhD Prize in it.

Your career path has been very interesting. We’d like to start by asking about your experience as a postdoc at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

I honestly enjoyed every minute of my time there. It was highly stimulating. My fellow postdocs and colleagues were performing very interesting research from robotics to corrosion to next-generation batteries. I worked with Dr. Debra Rolison on advanced electrochemical materials.

Is the government research environment very different to academia?

The goals in academia and government labs are very similar: research on fundamental or semi-applied science and engineering that may be too early in development to be analyzed by commercial groups.

Academia has a large hierarchy from high school interns to emeritus professors, so there is a large group that can come together to solve research problems and deal with the associated tasks. Governmental labs are predominantly staffed by a few PhD and postdoc scientists who must perform almost all the aspects of the work: proposal writing, lab work, paper drafts, conference proceedings… That said, in lab settings, your office neighbors are all experts so there is still a support system.

Oh, and one other difference: there’s a lot of paperwork in academia, but I felt the bureaucracy of governmental labs was sometimes greater!

In 2016, you moved to SiNode. What prompted the move into industry?

I was interested in working in the area between fundamental science and field use or deployment of a technology. I chose SiNode (recently rebranded as NanoGraf) because they were doing work in my area of interest, and because I was particularly interested in working for a small startup as I felt that the lessened bureaucracy might allow for more rapid change. Of course, every company has its own set of paperwork hurdles to jump — I wasn’t being naïve or imagining there would be no paperwork! But I was definitely ready for a smaller organization.

After SiNode, you moved on to Exponent. What made you decide to move into a career as a science and engineering consultant?

I was extremely interested in the broad set of problems that Exponent handles: the team I work with evaluated the batteries of a major smartphone brand; the company has examined the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the collapse of the World Trade Centers on 9/11, and the Exxon Valdez oil spills, among other things. Every day is different and full of the fundamental chemistry that I love coupled with real-world devices, materials and consequences. I still have great ties to academic-type work with experts in every office at Exponent, but I get to work on immediately relatable topics and devices. In fact, I still am encouraged to publish and present findings at conferences. I’ve found engineering consulting to be the best of all worlds.

Do you feel that industry research positions give you opportunities that academic research positions don't?

There are some specific opportunities in my field: I will get access to perform research on devices before they hit the market and evaluate prototypes that need to be developed further. That’s always going to interest me because, as mentioned, I love the space between fundamental science and application.

I also get to consider fundamental ideas in other disciplines, even ones that I wouldn’t have necessarily come across in a purely academic career. If we’re looking at, say, a smartphone battery, we’re not just looking at its chemistry.

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We have to discuss the electronics that need to accurately monitor temperature, the impact of the processing unit of the device, and the electrical signals from the battery. We have to think about how these components interact with LCD displays and even how a user might interact with the overall device.

In academia, my focus was on a discrete component of a material, and that was really fulfilling in its own way. But it’s a completely different experience to have the opportunity to engage with all the science and engineering of a real-world object.

Turning to the Reaxys PhD Prize: do you believe that being a Reaxys PhD Prize winner helped you in your career?

I do think that being a Reaxys PhD Prize winner helped me in my career. It helped me shine a spotlight on specific aspects of my research that might have gotten lost in an overview of my graduate work. For example, the fundamental (academic) chemistry that I did.

I've also had the opportunities to interact with more chemists, and particularly with more organic chemists, than I would have in a normal graduate and postdoc career. At the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium, I met a great group of people and that’s continued at other academic conferences since then.

What advice would you give someone wanting to move into industry after their PhD?

My main advice would be to talk openly in your network — in person and online — about your interest in moving into industry. Many opportunities aren't advertised and there are career paths you wouldn't think of. Most people in industry want to help their friends and colleagues in their careers and are happy to talk with PhD holders and PhD candidates. If your network doesn’t know that’s what you want to do, they can’t have your back.

Dr. Donakowski, thank you so much for your time.

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Photographs courtesy of Dr. Corissa Lee (Exponent).