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Mar 19 / Sarah Sheesley

Q&A with Cassandra Ward, Ph.D.

Cassandra Ward, Ph.D.

Cassandra Ward, Ph.D.

B.S., Chemistry, University of Nebraska Omaha, 2008

Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, University of Kansas, 2014

Dr. Cassandra Ward is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Wayne State University. She held a postdoc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2014 – 2016. She participated in the BEST program starting in 2016, exploring the government and industry tracks, and won a Phase III internship for 2017. This past summer Dr. Ward interned at Wayne State University’s Lumigen Instrument Center, a comprehensive core facility that aids and trains researchers in mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, x-ray crystallography, and electron microscopy. She continues to split her time between working at the facility and as a postdoc, and says she enjoys mentoring and collaborating with other students and researchers, especially those outside of her discipline. Dr. Ward hopes to transition to a full-time staff scientist position at Lumigen when one becomes available.

Q. Why did you decide to pursue the BEST program and what was your impression?

A. I moved here in 2014 with my husband, who is an assistant professor of chemistry, and I’ve been trying to find a job in the area doing research. I’ve been open to all possibilities, including academia and industry.

This is my second postdoc, so I’ve already participated in several career programs. Therefore I was expecting the same kinds of talks. But it was nice that BEST brought in people from the area who are actually in industry so that you could hear their stories about how they got their positions. You find out that most of them are like you and had to work hard to find a position as well, which is reassuring. Sometimes it seems like it’s easier for everyone else. Through the Phase II workshops and meeting the speakers, I realized how much networking you really need to do.

Q. You did an internship here at Wayne State at the Lumigen Instrument Center (LIC). How did you end up securing that position?

A. I had a few ups and downs with companies trying to find an internship, and things kept falling through. You would think companies would really want free labor, but it’s a lot more difficult than that, apparently. It just so happened that Dr. Judy Westrick, who runs the LIC, popped into the office and mentioned that they had a potential position available that would be well-suited for a physical chemist. She suggested that I start interning for her now and then when the position opened up, I’d be able to apply and already have work experience.

I’m still working at the LIC. I spend two days a week there and three days a week in the lab.

Q. Can you tell me about your internship and your collaboration with scientists in other disciplines?

A. The LIC is a core facility. I was doing a lot of spectroscopy like x-ray diffraction and crystallography. Anyone can come into the LIC, even those from outside of Wayne State, and have us run a sample and interpret it for them. But we also do a lot of training of students who will be using the equipment.

I am still a postdoc, and so I’m still on the research side of things. I have things I need to get done at the LIC, like maintaining the instruments and SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures], but I also have a research project. I also do the training for new students and collaborators.

Dr. Westrick brings a lot of traffic through the facility because she is trying to get more people, especially at Wayne State, to use it. One day she brought an anthropology class through a room where I happened to be working, and she mentioned to them that I’m a postdoc and that I have time to work on any projects they may have. One of the students ended up emailing me and asked if I could work on some samples. He came over with a few objects that previous students had dug up at a site down by the river. The samples had come from a factory that no longer exists, and this student wanted to understand what they were and from that, learn about what went on at the factory.

So we did an elemental analysis of the objects with the X-Ray Diffractometer (XRD) and used a program to do the identification. The XRD can identify both elements and phases. Elements can be rearranged depending on temperature. One thing the student wanted to know was the phase of some quartz that was found, to help figure out where it might be functioning in the factory.

The student’s team in anthropology is currently writing up their findings for publication.

I had never crossed disciplines to that extreme. It was neat to work with an anthropology student and be able to teach him about chemistry. I’ve always wanted to be more of a mentor, which is why I like being at LIC because you’re working with all kinds of people and helping them to fulfill their research goals. Plus the more collaborations you do, the more people you meet, and you never know how those relationships will develop.

Q. Do you have any advice for students or postdocs who are considering their career paths?

A. The best time to figure out what you want to do in the future is during your graduate training.  There are so many opportunities out there for grad students to do internships, and you should take advantage of them. Make sure you discuss potential career paths with your advisor.  They are there to help you reach your career goals, and will do whatever they can to help you succeed. Also, attend job fairs or career development sessions at your university and at conferences. You’ll meet a lot of people with different backgrounds who have advice that they are more than happy to share. Ask them how they like their position and how they got to where they are now.

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

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