Name: Jacob Fernandez-Gallardo
Occupation: Quality Management Scientist (QA/QC Specialist)
About Me: I have loved chemistry since the very first time I read the word “atom” at school. I was 12 years old and I still have the book. My father is the last in at least five generations of blacksmiths, and his work always made me wonder about metals. I had always wanted to know about the nature of metals, where their unique properties came from and how they played so central a role in human history. Knowing about atoms was the beginning of an answer to those questions. And the most important part of the answer was finding something even better: lots of new questions! I decided to read and study as much about chemistry as possible.
After high school and some sabbatical time working as a varnisher, I studied chemistry in Toledo (Spain) and Zaragoza (Spain), where I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Organic and Inorganic Chemistry. In my last year as undergraduate student I worked in two different research labs: first in Toledo for two months, in Prof. Otero’s lab under supervision of Prof. Ruiz, and then in Zaragoza for 9 months in Prof. Navarro’s lab under supervision of Prof. Contel. I worked with different metals with different applications within the area of Green Chemistry, focusing on the activation of small molecules and catalysis.
This time in research labs showed me that research was my vocation, so I decided to do a PhD in Chemistry. I applied for different grants and eventually I was awarded a fellowship from the Spanish Government to do a PhD in the University of Castilla-La Mancha, in Toledo (Spain). I mainly worked in the synthesis of organometallic tantalum compounds for the activation of small molecules with potential applications in Green Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry. During my PhD I did a short stay in Prof. Lledós research group in the Autonomous University of Barcelona to learn computational chemistry in order to understand the way “my” tantalum compounds were working in the flasks.
Intrigued by the way computational chemistry works and its huge variety of applications, I decided to broaden my knowledge on this field and look for a postdoctoral stay. I was accepted as a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Himo´s research group at Stockholm University (Sweden), where I learned computational and quantum chemistry. Besides theoretical chemistry, the time in a foreign country brought me a lot of new and rewarding experiences. After almost three years in Sweden, I decided to go back to the lab. I was accepted as a postdoctoral research associate in Prof. Contel’s research group at Brooklyn College (CUNY). This was the way to achieve two of my dreams: to work in the US, and, from the professional point of view, to explore the nature and applications of molecules containing two metal centers. This experience was amazing, and meant one of the happiest and fruitful periods of my live. Unfortunately, two and a half years after arriving in the US, I had to leave for personal reasons. Even so, I got one of the most remarkable of my professional achievements: I participated in the design, synthesis and full chemical and biological study of an organometallic drug (a gold-titanium compound) able to reduce the size of renal tumors in mice. This work that gave rise to several scientific publications and a US patent.
About My Work: Back in Spain, I realized that finding a job in research in this country is something really hard to do. So I decided to widen my range of job applications and found that Forensic Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry (Pharma Industry) might be interesting fields to work in. First I worked as a Scientific Advisor and then as Quality Management Scientist and as Quality Control/Quality Assurance Specialist, both jobs at the Laboratory of Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances of the Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices (AEMPS) of the Government of Spain.
I have a double role in my work. On one hand, I work in a project that deals with the implementation and maintenance of a Quality Management System under the compliance guidelines from the International Organization for Standardization, which certifies the techniques that are used in this type of work. The best practices for this are known, and we have already obtained the corresponding accreditation certificate. And on the other hand, I work as a scientific advisor in the structural characterization of new psychoactive substances (NPS), not only for the interpretation of the information obtained from the current analytical instruments in the lab, but also for the advising in the purchase of new instrumentation and the design of new experiments.
In a typical day I process and analyze the data generated in the lab, assuring that the different analytical methods and techniques are used appropriately. I also work in the structural analysis of NPSs and other narcotics seized in Spain, as well as in the development of new analytical methods for the quantification of illegal substances.
The chemistry I learned as undergraduate and during my PhD is very important for me when I work on the structural characterization of NPSs, especially analytical techniques and structural elucidation. One of the screening techniques mostly used in the field is the “reagent testing.” This approach is similar to the “Qualitative Inorganic Analysis” of ions, though rather than being an easily visible change the result depends on subsequent chromatographic measurements that determine the presence (and sometimes the concentration) of a narcotic or psychotropic substance in a given sample. Among the chromatographic techniques employed in the field are gas chromatography (GC), high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), and the coupled version of these chromatographic techniques with mass spectrometry (GC-MS, HPLC-MS, among others). Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Infrared Spectroscopies are among the techniques used to perform structural elucidation. In the part of Quality Management, the analytical capability acquired during my PhD and postdoctoral stays turns out to be a very useful and powerful tool. Also, the IT and computational skills that I got along the way have turned out to be an essential part of my work day.
The best thing about my job is getting to work in a cross-functional team, and knowing that we are helping people by finding out the kind and quality of substances that some of them are abusing. The worst thing is that the number of NPSs that appear is so big (and more appear so fast) that sometimes there is not enough time to warn people about it and some people die.
Advice About Entering the Field: My advice is that before finishing you bachelors degree, stop for a while, think thoroughly, look at yourself and look around, especially the job market, and then make a decision about what you want.
If you have a really curious mind and love to understand the “last” reason why things happen, the most fundamental one, learn how to do research and get a PhD. But remember, first think about what you will want to do after the PhD!
If you are interested in working in Forensic Chemistry, my advice is to study not only chemistry, but also quality management, and to develop your IT skills as much as possible. I believe these two things are very important for a wide variety of jobs.