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Laurie Mottram: A Penn State Chemistry Alum Interview

27 April 2022
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Laurie Mottram

 

Managing Science

Penn State alum, Dr. Laurie Mottram, completed her graduate work in chemistry from 2002 to 2007. In this alum interview, Mottram tells us about her time as a graduate student and how her interests evolved after graduating. Professional experience in a chemical lab eventually led Mottram to a career in project management, which has since brought her to her current position as the commercial products director for the health division of the specialty chemicals company Johnson Matthey.   

 

Kathryn: What made you decide on Penn State for graduate school?  

Laurie: I decided on Penn State based on proximity to my family in New Jersey as well as having a nationally ranked chemistry program. My undergraduate advisor had encouraged me to apply and, after a visit to the campus, the atmosphere made the decision easy.  

Kathryn: Was chemistry your first choice of study? 

Laurie: Well, the story goes that I initially picked chemistry because I was being “lazy.” When I was applying to undergraduate colleges, my school of choice needed you to declare your major upon entry. I knew I wanted to do something in science and had considered biology. When I saw the popularity of biology as a major and that you had to write an extra essay on your application to the school, I decided to pick chemistry instead. Fortunately, it worked out for the best. 

Kathryn: Who did you do research with while you were here, and what was your lab’s focus? 

Laurie: I did my graduate research with Dr. Blake Peterson (currently at OSU). Our lab’s work focused on the design, synthesis, and biological evaluation of cell permeable molecular probes. This consisted of making some novel fluorophores for cellular imaging and attaching them to interesting targets. 

Kathryn: You mentioned chemistry was an alternative to the biology major in your undergraduate years and that is how you got started in chemistry. Once you got to graduate school at Penn State, did you definitively know the area of chemistry you wanted to focus on? 

Laurie: Once I got to Penn State, I still felt like I wanted a bit of biology. As I was looking at the different labs, I saw Dr. Blake Peterson had a bit of a hybrid approach with mostly chemistry but also testing what was made on cells. So, it seemed like a good fit.  

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

Laurie: This all boils down to the other graduate students within the program. Without making good friends who were going through the same journey, it would have been tough. My roommates and good friends, all of whom were chemistry graduate students, provided positive support and encouragement throughout my entire time at Penn State.

 

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Blake Peterson Group
Laurie Mottram (front row, third from left) with the Peterson Lab Group 

 

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

Laurie: Balance. To me you can make the best of your time if you balance the responsibilities of being a student with the adventure and privilege of being a student. For me it was always “work hard, play hard.” Don’t forget to enjoy the time you have there because it will be over before you know it.  

Kathryn: What university resources were most helpful to you when searching for and applying for job opportunities while trying to complete your Ph.D.?  

Laurie: I used ACI conferences to network and obtain interviews. However, the most useful resource was the Penn State on-site job fair. In my final year of graduate school, I was able to interview with a few companies right on campus and was ultimately offered a job (months before my intended thesis defense), which I accepted.  

Kathryn: Tell us about your career journey after graduating from Penn State. 

Laurie: Out of graduate school I started as a development chemist based on the job offer I received while at Penn State. I was a senior research scientist with Curia (formerly known as AMRI, Albany Molecular Research Institute). I worked in the lab for about 7 years before moving to project management. This career change was influenced by management at the company I worked for. Based on technical knowledge and effective communication skills, they felt project management would be a good fit for me. I then spent 7 years in project management prior to becoming a commercial products director for the health division of the specialty chemicals company Johnson Matthey, my current company. This move seemed logical given my increased exposure to the business side of the company rather than solely the technical side. 

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

Laurie: From a career sense I did not have many difficulties and felt Penn State had prepared me well. I was excited to be working in industry earning a real paycheck. The only thing I struggled with was the “poor grad student” mentality. When you are in graduate school you take every opportunity to eat for free because you are living on such a tight budget. For 5 years it was an awesome thing to get free pizza at a seminar or donuts at a professor's talk. To this day I cannot pass up free food because of my engrained “poor grad student” mentality! 

Kathryn: How was the professional lab experience with Curia? It must have been a good feeling being able to get right into another lab after graduating. 

Laurie: It was quite different actually. Large scale chemistry is not really experienced in graduate school and while graduate school gave me the technical knowledge and the base level skill set, there was a lot of new stuff to learn. There was also a much larger emphasis on safety in the industrial setting (although I’m sure a lot has changed on that at Penn State in the past 20 years). 

Kathryn: What was something you took from graduate school that helped you settle into your career? 

Laurie: The most important thing in graduate school that helped me through was great technical writing and speaking guidance provided to me by my advisor. In this industry, people very much appreciate effective communication. With project management, I was still able to use the chemistry knowledge gained in school to monitor programs and understand them as I moved forward managing different teams. In graduate school you need to be very independent and autonomous to have the drive to get your research done. These traits also translated well to project management. I was not aware of this career path until I was already imbedded in the industry. 

Kathryn: What can you say to current graduate students uncertain about chemistry-related careers outside of research and/or academia? 

Laurie: You never know where you will end up, embrace the journey. I never intended to be a project manager or even a commercial director. I just wanted to be a chemist. But when opportunities presented themselves, I took advantage of them and in doing so ended up with a broad and successful career. 

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

Laurie: In all honesty the opportunities that I wish I had taken advantage of have nothing to do with academics or school…it was opportunities to get out of the lab and do something fun that I often passed up. I wish I had taken more time to stop and smell the roses. At the time, graduate school felt like it took forever, but looking back, it was just a brief moment. 

Kathryn: Do you have any advice for graduate students trying to balance a family and career? 

Laurie: Yes, the work/life balance can at times be challenging. I was in my mid-30s when I had my son, so I waited until I finished graduate school before becoming a mom, but I was working on my MBA when I had my son. My best advice is to separate work and family time as much as you can.  When the workday is done, don’t look at the e-mails, don’t accept the phone calls…. Just be with your family. When I was younger, I didn’t abide by these rules, and it took time away from my loved ones. In the end the jobs will change, the people you work with will change, but your family is forever. Women absolutely can have both a family and a career if they want to!

 

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Laurie Mottram and son
Laurie with her son

 

Kathryn: And lastly…Can you recall your favorite memory at Penn State? 

Laurie: Other than time with friends, my favorite memory is of my first Penn State football game. It was 2002 (holy cow, that was 20 years ago?!?!) and Penn State was playing Nebraska. Nebraska was ranked #7 at the time and the game had more than 110,700 attendees. This game still ranks 3rd in all time attendance. It was my first Penn State Football experience, and it was awesome! Hearing that many people yell “we are…. Penn State!” in the stadium was very impressive. After that I was hooked!