Name: Shaun MacMahon
Occupation: Branch Chief, Chemical Contaminants Branch, FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
About Me: Until I moved to Maryland for my job, I lived in New York my whole life. I grew up on Long Island before moving to New York City to attend New York University, where I received my Bachelor’s (in Chemistry) and Ph.D. (in Organic Chemistry). Starting as a volunteer in my junior year of college through completing my Ph.D., I worked in Professor David Schuster’s laboratory.
Professor Schuster was a great mentor, and he prepared me very well for my career. He trusted me to operate complex and expensive scientific equipment on my own, and that was a huge help when I was interviewing for jobs. Most companies thinking about hiring you will want to know what equipment you’ve operated or what lab techniques you know, and being at a University is a great place to get that experience. I was able to present my research at conferences, which helps you get over any fear of public speaking and helps you learn how to answer tough questions.
After I finished my Ph.D., I started working at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory in Jamaica, NY. After a few years of just working, I missed being at a college, so I started teaching Organic Chemistry at Brooklyn College in the evenings. I did that for two years, and I would have done it for longer, but that was when I moved to Maryland to start my current job.
About My Work: I work in the Chemical Contaminants Branch in the Office of Regulatory Science in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, MD, which is a few miles north of Washington, DC. Most people in the Branch are working in the lab on methods to test for allergens, toxic elements, and nutritional elements in food. To complete their work, they use everything from really complex scientific instrumentation like mass spectrometers to simple, handheld color changing tests.
When I started at FDA, I also worked in the lab developing methods for contaminants in food. But now, I’m the supervisor for a Branch, so I don’t spend much time in the lab anymore. My job is to help everyone in the Branch complete their lab work solving all the most important food safety issues. I have to make sure they have everything they need to complete those projects. I also review all of their articles and presentations, making sure everything in them is clear and correct. I go to a lot of meetings with people inside and outside the FDA to learn more about food safety issues that I can share with the Branch.
The best thing about my job is applying everything I learned in school to an important issue like ensuring that food in the United States is safe. I particularly like when I get to use Organic Chemistry to solve an important problem at work! It’s much easier to work hard when you like what your job and you feel like you’re doing something good for people. I enjoy getting to work with a lot of very talented scientists. The most difficult part is that sometimes there’s just so much to do that I end up working even after I go home at night or while I’m supposed to be on vacation.
Advice About Entering the Field: When I was finishing school, I thought the choices for a chemist were to either work in the pharmaceutical industry or to work at a University. Working in government was not something I knew was even an option, but there are many paths available to people with a chemistry degree. Lots of businesses want to hire people with chemistry knowledge who can think critically.
I think the first preparation you need is to learn the fundamentals of chemistry in classes. Then try and identify which parts of the course work you enjoy most and apply them by getting hands-on experience in those areas. Take upper level classes that can teach you more, volunteer in the lab of a Professor whose work interests you, get an internship. That kind of specialized experience is extremely valuable, both in figuring out what you like to do and developing the background you need to find a position you’ll enjoy once you graduate.
Chemistry rewards people who really like to dig deeply into a subject; that’s why it’s so important to identify an area you enjoy working in and want to learn more about. It’s also a good fit for a curious person who wants to continue learning throughout their life. Scientific knowledge is always expanding and changing, sometimes rapidly. New techniques are developed, new theories are proven true, or old theories are proven false. As a result, whatever you’re doing as a chemist today probably won’t be what you do for your whole career, or even a few years down the line!