Synthesizing a Network of Chemists: Coffee with a Chemist Series

 July 10, 2024

Have you been to this networking event? You’re awkwardly standing among the fringes of a conversation, sipping your beverage just a little too quickly because you’re unsure what else to do, looking around the room nervously hoping someone approaches you. You know that you should network to increase your contacts in your field, and you want to network to gain knowledge about your industry, but you’re just uncertain how to do it.

Any chemistry course will tell you how to form a strong bond between atoms, but forming strong personal bonds in a professional network can be a trickier topic for graduate students to navigate. To bridge this gap in networking knowledge, the Chemistry Department’s Professional Development Committee revived the “Coffee with a Chemist” series with funding from The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant.

Coffee with a Chemist events aim to bring together graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with professional chemists to have a relaxed conversation over breakfast treats. These events are low stakes opportunities to network because meeting one-on-one for informational interviews can be quite intimidating. Informal coffees give graduate students the chance to hone networking skills alongside each other while learning about the speaker’s career or professional development. Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Paul Walton to talk gender equality in STEM, Dr. Andre Isaacs of TikTok fame to chat about personal branding and building community, and Duke alumna Julie Pollock, Ph.D.’11 (Chemistry) to chart her career path from Duke to professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI).

Jessica Blomberg, PhD
“If you want to connect with someone but they tell you ‘No,’ you don’t want their advice anyway.”

For the spring semester’s final installment of Coffee with a Chemist, we invited Dr. Jessica Blomberg, alumna and expert networker, to share her experiences as an independent consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. Jessica completed her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 2003 and worked locally in the pharmaceutical industry following graduation. After working in a few different roles, Jessica was frustrated with the volatility of the job market and decided to start her own business in 2012 called Quality CMC Consulting. As an independent consultant, Jessica leverages her expertise in the pharmaceutical industry to provide solutions for companies around the world to formulate and package a range of drug products for varying therapeutic applications. During coffee, Dr. Blomberg’s face lit up as she pantomimed the process of packaging a sterile eye drop medication; this passionate problem solving earned Jessica recognition as the Triangle’s Life Sciences Consultant of the Year in 2020.

Jessica emphasized throughout the event the advantages of cultivating a strong network. She recounted chairing a discussion panel at a professional organization event, when she received notice that she was let go from her job. Upon sharing this news with the audience, Jessica was hired on the spot into a new role. Networking also helped to build her consulting client base, which attracted $1.2 billion in deals between 2019 and 2020.

Graduate students often find themselves unsure of how to build a network that works for them, like Jessica’s has. When asked for advice on building a network, Jessica laughed and said, “No one really likes networking.” It can be intimidating to attend a networking event, but she encouraged us that everyone has that uncomfortable feeling and to push through it. Jessica suggested that conferences, professional associations, and local organizations, like the NC Biotechnology Center, are great places to network with other scientists. She offered one more piece of advice: “If you want to connect with someone but they tell you ‘No,’ you don’t want their advice anyway.”

Coffee with a Chemist conversation
Attendees of Coffee with a Chemist network with alumna Jessica Blomberg in a relaxed setting.

One of the main goals for Coffee with a Chemist events is allowing graduate students to get insightful advice on how to build a career path they want, whether it’s the path the invited guest took or not. From just an hour-long talk with Jessica, Coffee with a Chemist attendees gained valuable career information. Many of the graduate students and postdoc attendees admitted that they didn’t know much about consulting as a career path before meeting with Dr. Blomberg. Participants later reflected that they had a better understanding of what a consultant’s day-to-day tasks look like, the breadth of career paths within the pharmaceutical industry, and the necessary skills it takes to be successful as a consultant. Even fourth-year Ph.D. candidate Amy Robison, a member of DACC (Duke Advanced-Degree Consulting Club), appreciated learning about the experiences of an independent consultant and business owner. She reflected, “I hadn’t heard much about independent consulting before outside of a consulting firm.” This Coffee gave space for Jessica to provide Amy and other attendees with a fresh perspective and specific career guidance on choosing between independent or firm-based consulting.

Bontreger, Schulte, and Blomberg
Professional Development Co-chairs Natalie (left) and Leah (right) had an excellent time hosting Jessica (center) for Coffee with a Chemist

As co-chair of the Chemistry Department’s Professional Development Committee, it brings me joy to organize events that my classmates find so helpful. But I wasn’t the only one thrilled by the success of this event. Jessica continually expressed to me and my co-chair, fourth-year Ph.D. candidate Natalie Schulte, how excited she was to be invited to our event. She thanked us for reaching out as much as we thanked her for sharing her expertise. It was such a pleasure to meet Jessica and become a part of her strong network. This Coffee with a Chemist event provided current graduate students and postdoctoral scholars exposure to careers beyond the bench or academia, but regardless of the career paths we will choose, we can all learn from Jessica’s final optimistic message: “Don’t be afraid to go after it.”

Even more importantly, this Coffee empowered attendees to start building a network with Duke Ph.D. alumni, honing skills they need to feel confident at their next networking event. The first year’s return of the Coffee with a Chemist series was such a hit with graduate students that the Professional Development Committee eagerly anticipates planning another year of this series facilitating graduate students’ development of networking skills, connection with alumni, and thoughtful discussions over warm mugs of coffee.


Leah Bontreger
Leah Bontreger

Ph.D. candidate, Chemistry

Leah Bontreger is a rising fifth-year chemistry Ph.D. candidate in the Franz Lab. Her research focuses on the structure, function, and mechanism of physiologically-relevant peptides susceptible to oxidation by metals. After a long day of spectral analysis, she enjoys cooking new meals, caring for her dog, and watching competition reality TV shows.