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Chemistry Alumni Interview Series: Eric Schwarz

28 September 2022
eric schwarz


Former Penn State chemistry undergraduate student Eric Schwarz discusses how his interests in nuclear and radiochemistry inspired a memorable experience as an undergrad. Schwarz further explains how he made it a point to remain connected to Penn State after graduating by keeping in contact with chemistry faculty and interning at the Radiation Science and Engineering Center, which helped his transition to commercial nuclear. 


Kathryn: What drew you to the Penn State chemistry undergraduate program?

Eric: I left the Navy in 2003 hearing that there was a nuclear reactor on campus. I wanted a big school with a great football legacy and access to many library resources. I intended to be a Nuclear Engineering major because of my experience as a nuclear reactor operator on submarines, and so I could work on problems in used nuclear fuel. However, I had come to realize that a basis in chemistry may be more interesting; I changed majors in my second semester. 

Kathryn: What facet of chemistry were you most interested in and why? 

Eric: I have a primary interest in nuclear and radiochemistry, which is concerned with analysis of radioactive materials and production of isotopes for a variety of industries. What captures my interest is utilization of radiation: developing isotopes of practical use for research, analysis of materials and samples to investigate problems and further expansion of clean-energy production. 

Kathryn: Was there someone within the chemistry department who had a positive impact on you during your time here? 

Eric: Jackie Bortiatynski was my academic advisor and I have the pleasure of seeing her whenever I visit. Mark Maroncelli has been a great contact over the years as I stay in contact with Penn State Chemistry. I also enjoyed working with Tom Mallouk (now at UPenn Chemistry) and a former student of his Yoji Kobiyashi (now Associate Professor at King Abdullah University, Chemical Sciences). 

Kathryn: What resources were most helpful for you when searching for and applying for job opportunities after your time at Penn State? 

Eric: Networking and conferences. Meeting with people, talking about what you’re interested in opens access to ‘future contacts’. Penn State Chemistry has such a rich connection with many industries via the Alumni networks. 

Kathryn: Did you find difficulties in the transition between your schooling and career? 

Eric: Not too much. I enjoyed graduate school to get the opportunity to practice research work in the lab. I felt that my undergrad research experience was very helpful. I also interned at the Radiation Science and Engineering Center at Penn State as a Licensed Senior Reactor Operator which made the ultimate transition to commercial nuclear easier. 

Kathryn: What was the most important thing you learned as an undergraduate student that helped you get where you are now? 

Eric: I think I remained flexible—you never know what experiences can be of value until you start connecting the dots. I was able to look at aspects of previous experiences to help guide me to what I wanted to do and not limit myself to what the job merely wanted. I’ve had setbacks but I always focused on what I wanted and that has been rewarding. 

When I started in commercial nuclear, I took a job as the site radiochemist at Peach Bottom in Delta, PA. This job is more than just being lab QA manager—it’s managing the programs for radioactive measurements, plant releases to the environment, calculation of dose projections and leading training for technicians on chemical principles. There are many aspects of that job that I loved which have been important to hold onto while I am a nuclear systems engineer. This, in turn, has been helpful for mentoring Capstone Engineering projects in nuclear engineering and other disciplines at Penn State. 

Kathryn: What types of networking opportunities did you find helpful in getting into your career? How do you stay involved now?

Eric: I remain involved in multiple technical disciplines. Certainly, my grad school decision to go to Chemical Engineering was very important to ultimately pivot into a role where I manage plant systems. I think I remained open and optimistic that I can do more than just my degree, which has proved successful, at least in the long run. As I said earlier, I make an effort to remain in contact with Penn State Science and Penn State Engineering to look for opportunities where I can help my employer and the university. I volunteer as the Radiochemist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster which kept me in a research support role. I guess I ‘custom-made’ my career and didn’t follow any models! 

I’ve built a program to develop isotopes as an inexpensive alternative for researchers, mostly as radiotracers. Currently, the US DOE is the sole-supplier for many isotopes and many other isotopes may be used but because their half-life is so short, it may be cost-prohibitive to use. The Penn State Breazeale Reactor is a unique resource that is under-utilized for ‘non-traditional’ isotope production. I’ve been fortunate to grow this using Penn State College of Engineering’s Learning Factory to mentor students on real research making isotopes or new nuclear materials research apparatus development. I’d love to involve Penn State more: environmental science, chemistry, etc. I think the Penn State connections have been enormously enriching in the years after undergrad. 

Kathryn: How can undergraduate students make the most of their time while in school? 

Eric: Study to build confidence in your level of knowledge. I had some strong subjects but looking back I could have focused more on what I did not know and seeking deeper understanding. I think the pace of learning is fast and the number of concurrent courses is a challenge but putting the time in earlier is preferable. Attend AND be engaged in office hours. You’re here to learn and you need to feel like you can be vulnerable enough to risk looking like you don’t know something; ask questions and consider faculty as senior colleagues, not bosses (I had some lingering post-military hierarchy perceptions that likely limited my interactions). It does not matter what your undergrad cohort thinks of you—it matters more how often you practice being vulnerable and being an active listener. 

Kathryn: If you could offer one piece of advice to our current undergrads, what would that be? 

Eric: Remove self-imposed limitations. Too often I talk with undergrads that are self-limiting based on degree. I’ve never saw myself as ‘just a chem major’, whereas I’ve seen many people with skills who are afraid to use them because they aren't in the comfort of what they studied. 

Kathryn: Looking back on your undergrad experiences, are there opportunities you wish you had taken advantage of? 

I wish that I did more undergrad research. I had a full schedule and didn’t apply enough hours per week and weekend hours. Looking back, undergrad research was so special and rewarding. I could see that getting into undergrad research earlier in the major and spending more time (nights and weekends) getting familiar with more techniques. Getting comfortable in the lab (doing the ‘grind’, doing and re-doing from failures, doing a lot of analyses) is such a treasure. I think it pays off for so many things in the future by building a core resilience.

Kathryn: Lastly, can you recall your favorite memory as a Penn State chemistry student? 

Eric: Lab work! I loved being in every lab I was in. I felt like I was practicing an important art. Most of the faculty were generous with their time and very accommodating which was a wonderful experience. They made me want to be here. 



Media Contacts
Kathryn Harlow
Chemistry Communications Coordinator