In this Q&A style interview, we hear from Penn State chemistry alumna Julianne Wolfe who discusses her undergraduate school experiences and how her background in chemistry impacted her evolving career from bench work to a developed passion in project management. Wolfe recently visited Penn State University Park to speak with chemistry undergraduate students in the Eberly College of Science as part of the Undergraduate Summer Professional Development Program. She gave a talk on her career development and the importance of using essential skills for problem solving and leadership that students can use inside and outside of the lab.
Q: What made you decide on Penn State for your bachelor's degree, and was chemistry always your intended major?
A: I selected Penn State because of its well-known architecture program, which is where I started. I spent almost two years in that major and decided to switch after realizing I didn’t have a passion for it. At the time, criminal forensics was just becoming mainstream, and I found it interesting. I had a professional in the field recommend getting a natural science degree to pursue a career in it (this was before anyone had a forensics program!). That’s how I made my way to the chemistry department.
Q: What facet of chemistry were you most interested in?
A: Analytical chemistry, hands down! I enjoyed using different instruments and absolutely loved the problem-solving component. You have to take all these different pieces of data and analyze them together to solve a puzzle.
Q: Was there someone within the chemistry department who had a positive impact on you during your time here?
A: I would have to say Dr. Tom Mallouk. I performed undergraduate research in his lab. Sometimes I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but he never made me feel like I was doing something wrong and always took the time to guide me. When I was freaking out before graduation about entering the workforce and not knowing as much as I thought I should, he gave me the best piece of advice, “College teaches you how to learn.” In other words, I wasn’t coming out of school ready to solve the world’s problems, instead, I was coming out with the foundational skills to learn what I needed to perform my work. I have passed that message on to so many students who have felt the same way!
Q: Did you find any difficulties during the transition between school and career? What was most helpful to you during this transition?
A: I can’t say that I had much difficulty. I was able to secure employment relatively soon after graduation. I started my professional career at a small company. I think that afforded me experiences (like publishing and securing patents) that new graduates don’t typically get to do right away at larger organizations. I didn’t realize how valuable those experiences were until I moved to other organizations and saw that wasn’t the norm.
Q: Your career has transformed immensely from when you began as an applications scientist, to working your way up as a team leader in biotechnology and pharmaceutical services, then to project management in manufacturing and healthcare. What sparked this change of interest from working in a lab to a corporate position in project management?
A: As a team leader, I had been investigating better ways to lead large research projects and came across the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge). This is the text that specifies best practices in project management which, at the time, I didn’t even know was a professional field. The more I learned about it, the more passion I felt for that type of work. I tried to find roles within research where I could investigate project management more, but the sciences had not yet fully embraced formal project management back then. Eventually I moved into a discipline that did (information technology), and that took me out of the lab.
Q: What skills have you implemented from working in a lab to your current position as a project manager?
A: There are many skills learned in the lab which are transferrable; time management, teamwork, decision making, and organization are a few. For me, the most significant has been problem solving. Utilizing the scientific method through school and early in my career helps me excel at pivoting plans, compensating for risk that has been realized, and determining which project management processes and tools best fit a project. Things don’t always work so you have to learn from that and move on in a different way. This has helped me immensely to be successful in project management.
Q: You are active in professional organizations like The PMO Leader and the PMI Pittsburgh Chapter where you have an opportunity to coach on leadership and other topics. What do you enjoy most about coaching and developing other professionals in corporate industry?
A: I’ve had some pretty awesome mentors throughout my career. I can remember how I felt when those mentors guided me to do things that I didn’t think I could do. I felt inspired, surprised, proud, grateful, and most of all, accomplished. I enjoy leveraging my strengths and sharing my experiences to help others feel the same way.
Q: You were recently invited back to the Penn State chemistry department as one of the selected speakers for our Undergraduate Summer Professional Development Program. What was it like to come back and share your career journey with current chemistry undergraduate students?
A: It was very special for me! When I decided to pursue my passion for project management, it was incredibly hard to leave the lab. It actually took me a couple of tries before I could fully let it go. This event provided an opportunity to bridge the two sides of myself. I was able to share my project management experiences with future scientists, innovators, and researchers.
Q: During your talk with our undergraduate students, you focused on the importance of essential skills related to working in a group setting, whether it’s in a classroom, lab, or corporate company. These skills include the areas of leadership, communication, teamwork, empathy, critical thinking, etc... What best piece of advice can you offer to undergraduates who want to hone these “essential skills”?
A: Make sure you take time to learn about yourself. Self-awareness is extremely critical to honing essential skills. You have to understand your strengths, your opportunities, your triggers, your mannerisms, and your biases to be most effective.
Q: What has been one of the most rewarding moments in your career thus far? Do you have any future career goals?
A: I would have to say passing the PMP exam is up there. I was working full-time and had two young, active children. Finding the discipline to balance work and family as well as the intense study of the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) was very difficult. The exam is digital and the moment just before they announce whether you passed or failed feels like an eternity. When the message finally came up that I passed, I knew it was the pivotal moment to my career change into project management. It was super exciting and a tangible result to all that hard work and discipline. My future career goals are focused on advancing to higher management levels in the project management space.
Q: Lastly, what is your favorite memory as a Penn State chemistry student?
A: This is almost an unfair question as I have many great memories! One that stands out was when I won best paper and poster presentation in my inorganic chemistry class. First prize was a Merck index. It was coveted and everyone in the class wanted it. I took a bunch of my art tricks from spending a couple of years as an architecture student to create an engaging poster. Not only did I win the prize, but I learned something much more valuable. My paper and presentation were a reflection of me but a little outside of the norm and I was worried about that. The experience helped me realize that I could put my true self out there and still be successful. I still have that Merck index! Every time I catch a glimpse of it on the bookshelf, it makes me smile.