Jaime Curtis-Fisk’s plan in graduate school was to become an organic chemistry professor. She was passionate about education, had the needed communications skills, and was well prepared — she had earned her certification in college science and math education while completing her PhD program.
It was no surprise that upon graduating from Michigan State University in 2009 with a PhD in chemistry, Curtis-Fisk successfully landed an assistant professor position at Grand Valley State University, where she had received her undergraduate education.
The dream job, however, didn’t last long. In 2010, Curtis-Fisk’s husband accepted a position at the Dow Chemical Company, and the family needed to relocate. Curtis-Fisk had two options: keeping her dream job and splitting the family, or staying with her family and leaving her job. Having just started a family, Curtis-Fisk chose the latter.
To stay close with her family, Curtis-Fisk also applied for a position at Dow and was offered a senior chemist position in Dow’s Core R&D Division. She accepted the position and switched her career path from academia to industry.
But she kept her passion for education alive.
A Chemist’s Two Tales
When Curtis-Fisk joined Dow, employee volunteerism was already part of Dow’s culture. Several groups of Dow employees were actively engaging in outreach activities in their communities. But it was not an organized effort.
Recognizing her interest in education, Curtis-Fisk’s supervisors created a unique position that would allow her to conduct technical research as a R&D scientist and support Dow’s outreach programs as a STEM program leader, all at the same time. Without hesitation, Curtis-Fisk took the opportunity and started to make marks in two drastically different areas.
Implementing Dow’s STEM Ambassadors program
Upon accepting the dual-role position, Curtis-Fisk was asked to transform Dow employees’ grassroots efforts into a coordinated program. The goals were to create opportunities for Dow employees to best use their skills and passion, to ensure that the time and resources are well spent, and ultimately to generate the biggest impact possible.
And Curtis-Fisk didn’t disappoint. With the support of her colleagues and supervisors, she started the now well-known Dow STEM Ambassadors Program, an employee engagement program that trains and connects Dow employee volunteers with students, teachers, and local communities. To achieve the best result, she created an effective organizational structure for the program, developed resources to support the outreach efforts, and removed barriers that could potentially affect volunteers’ involvement. As a result, the number of volunteers increased from about 400 to 1600 within a year.
Today Curtis-Fisk and her STEM ambassadors have developed programs in multiple locations around the globe, and they have successfully built partnerships with a number of organizations, including the Smithsonian, the Chemical Education Foundation, and the American Association of Chemistry Teachers. Noticing the program’s impact, Dow has tied the educational program to its corporate initiatives.
“I always knew she'd make an excellent teacher, she is that special type of person that conveys things clearly and with all her focus on the person she is communicating with, she just draws you in,” says Witucki, Curtis-Fisk’s undergraduate research advisor who sparked her interest in chemistry. “I am certain she is doing the same as a STEM ambassador, passing on her love for chemistry to an audience of all ages.”
Thriving as an industry scientist
Curtis-Fisk’s research interest at Dow is mainly focused on drug delivery technologies. Her main responsibilities include using polymers’ unique properties to design new ways to deliver drugs, and designing corresponding formulations that are safe and effective. In another word, she is responsible for turning active drug ingredients into final products. As a project leader, she also helps her team develop research plans, analyze experiment results, and communicate the relevance of their findings to stakeholders.
Despite the amount of time and energy that Curtis-Fisk devoted to the STEM outreach program, her technical performance didn’t suffer. Since joining Dow, Curtis-Fisk has authored 26 corporate technical reports, submitted 17 invention concept documents, and filed 13 active patent applications. She also has published 4 peer-reviewed research publications, and presented at 7 national conferences.
Recognizing Curtis-FISK’s research excellence, in 2015, the American Chemical Society’s Women Chemists Committee awarded its Rising Star Award to Curtis-Fisk, along with nine other women scientists approaching mid-level careers.
Making It All Work
To many people, staying competitive in just one field is challenging enough. How could Curtis-Fisk thrive in two totally different areas?
“At times it was difficult to balance both worlds, particularly since I had two sets of stakeholders,” Curtis-Fisk admits. But from early on she realized that it helps to have a detailed plan for each engagement, maintain a well defined timeline for every project, and communicate clearly with both teams about expectations and work processes.
Curtis-Fisk’s skills in scientific communication proved invaluable, too.
“My talent is telling the story of science in a way that others can understand the technology, and appreciate the value,” says Curtis-Fisk. In the early days, her talent helped her successfully connect with her students. Today as a scientist and project leader, the ability helps her clearly communicate the needs of her teams, and effectively share their research results and potential impacts with stakeholders.
And the teaching certification that she earned in graduate school? Well, that turned out to be extremely helpful, too, especially when she speaks with the teachers her outreach programs support.
Keeping the passion alive
A first generation college student, Curtis-Fisk attributes her success to a large group of people who have supported her over the years. She credits her college professors with spurring and nurturing her interests in chemical research and education. She appreciates her husband for fully supporting her career growth. And she thanks her mentors and leaders at Dow for not only helping her create the dual-role career opportunity but continuing to help her to grow.
Her determination in keeping her passion alive, however, has no doubt played a great role in her success as well.
Reflecting on her unique career path, Curtis-Fisk admits that she would not feel completely fulfilled should her career were focused solely on doing technical work in the lab. Fortunately, she has learned that “there’s always a way to follow your passion.” “Even if it doesn’t seem at first like it’s something that fits with the rest of your career, you can still develop the right support system to make it happen,” says Curtis-Fisk.
Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.