FULL NAME: Yousra Abdelhadi
OCCUPATION: Former Chemist at Virginia Dare Flavor House and AVON Cosmetics, currently chemistry teacher and AP Curriculum Writer
ABOUT ME: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I went to James Madison High School and was lucky to be a student and employee at Brooklyn College.
My journey towards becoming a chemistry teacher took me through several different experiences all of which complement what I do now. At Brooklyn College, as a member of RISE I had the privilege of working at AREAC as a research assistant my sophomore year. Seeing the intersection between the different sciences come together in a research project was a wonderful experience. The work facilitated by Dr. Schreibman, Dr. Zarnoch, and the collaboration they demonstrated with other members of the Brooklyn College Science Community really amped my interest in the field.
With the help of Dr. Kobrak, I started my first internship at Virginia Dare, an extracts and flavor house. I started off as a quality control chemist where I got to see the application of many of the labs we did in school like gas chromatography, HPLC, and titrations to name a few. When I graduated I moved to the beverage department, where I worked on product matching, formula design with consideration of calories, appearance, and of course taste. I really enjoyed my time there. On our downtime I find myself speaking with veteran employees about the research they have done with emulsions and other products, real estate, and their own career journeys. I learned so much, but wanted to see how things would pan out in the world of cosmetic chemistry, that’s when I started working at AVON.
As a productivity chemist at AVON, I got to work on preparing different consumer products with a focus on reducing the cost while maintaining the quality. Being involved in the formulation and scale-up of a consumer product was really cool. I got to see the process from its inception. From making multiple batches of shampoos, hand creams and other products in the lab, to product testing with microbiology, toxicology, stability testing and of course getting various approvals including the folks in marketing. I worked at AVON full-time (4 days a week). Once a week I got to work at Brooklyn College as an adjunct instructor for first year General Chemistry and I LOVED it.
It was only once a week, but I enjoyed working with undergrad students on seeing how the puzzle pieces of science and chemistry in particular fit so perfectly to create meaning of the things we overlook daily. Of course there were struggles at times, but it was a wonderful learning experience and from there I knew I wanted to teach Chemistry full-time.
ABOUT MY WORK: I got into the Teaching Fellows Program and quickly entered the Department of Education as a high school science teacher while working on my Masters Degree in Education. Obviously there was a huge difference between teaching high school chemistry and college chemistry. Initially, I was a little overwhelmed with the graduate school and full time position, but those two years go by before you know it.
Building my skills as a pedagog, finding ways to incorporate literacy and mathematical reasoning skills into my lessons, making sure to connect with students as a person, helping them through whatever struggles they have, while taking them through the perfect choreography that exists between elements, particles, and energy in chemistry, became a journey of its own. High School Chemistry is similar to some of the introductory work done in General Chemistry. Often students are in the class because they have been programmed into it, or have a related career interest, regardless; building relevance into the topics and helping students see where in their daily life they come across these concepts brings a renewed sense of interest from all of us. Designing lab experiences for students from the student guide that they see, to the preparation of the solutions and substances they’ll use, and making meaning of the concept behind the activity all involves an understanding of the concepts learned in undergrad- not to mention a lot of time. There are usually tons of resources online to help with all this and if you are lucky you will have other chemistry teachers around to work through this with you.
Teachers often wear multiple hats. Besides teaching, I support teacher development as a Lead Teacher. I work with other teachers on facilitating discussions around data collection and analysis for instructional modifications, vertically aligning curriculum so that we are building student skills during their tenure in high school, collaborating to mutually improve our practice, and providing students with the experiences that would make a career in STEM fields more tenable. I am ever grateful that things have worked out well.
There are always tons of opportunities to further your career in the Department of Education, especially in science as long as you are willing to pursue them regardless of how rigorous the process may be. Currently, as a Math for America Master Teacher Fellow, I get to collaborate with other science teachers who are not just passionate about the content, but about student success and teaching as well. Besides the generous stipend, they provide a unique opportunity to connect with other professionals and discuss the delicate intricacies within a chemistry topic and its application to the classroom. Recently, I’ve been working with AP for All trying to increase the availability of AP courses and AP/college readiness for a broader group of students. Alongside one other teacher, I also write curriculum for the Chemistry Advanced Placement Courses in NYC funded by AP for All. It’s been such an exciting journey and I don’t think I’m done yet. I hope to one day use my background in industry and in education to create a pipeline for students with disabilities to enter positions like the ones I held regardless of how long it may take them to get there.
ADVICE ABOUT ENTERING THE FIELD: When I graduated college the economy was in a recession and the job market didn’t look too bright. I was a nervous senior who didn’t want to be unemployed. Even though I was in an internship and had some research experience I found myself applying to at least 20 positions a night and hearing from only a handful.
It was a little scary, but the experience I had gained during undergrad was really powerful. I highly encourage students in undergrad to find an internship, or to reach out to a professor and do some research in the lab.
When applying for a job in industry, potential employers will look for the specific technical chemistry skills you have mastered. Going from one position to the other, I asked my colleagues at the time to look over my resume and suggest any changes and consistently they would include the specific scientific procedures that we practiced. In reflecting on my college experience, I found that many of those procedures were labs we conducted in some of our chemistry classes. Having research lab experience made me so comfortable with wet chemistry techniques. Although in industry you often work under a more senior chemist, knowing how to calculate dilutions to suit your product sample, and apply other lessons learned in chemistry, without having to ask for help, certainly reflects well on you. The work done in industry is often like a puzzle with deadlines. You might be given an assignment like matching a competing company’s formula, or reformulating a product to meet new FDA guidelines or another country’s guidelines, or just making the product more cost effective. Often times it is up to you in the lab to access your mental arsenal of techniques to figure out how you’ll get it done. That’s the exciting part and seeing your product come into its final form and use is an added privilege; but be prepared to go through the entire process of working on a sample making a batch, tossing it, and starting over every time it doesn’t come out right.
Don’t be afraid to move around and ask for advice from those around you. Often veteran employees will have more insight into other branches of the industry, contacts in other companies, and a perspective that would be otherwise unknown to someone who hasn’t experienced it.
Teaching is a different type of puzzle. It involves knowing how to cull out ideas from other people, knowing the micro skills that lead to understanding a broader concept, lots of planning, and patience as students make meaning of the content. Although people tend to assume that teaching is a stagnant career, the world is changing, and so do our practices. There are constantly new initiatives, directives, and opportunities and it’s on the teacher to remain abreast and adjust accordingly. Teaching can be really stressful. Attempting to get through so many topics and finding that students don’t possess the basic skills to access them is often a challenge, but you find ways to address these throughout the year.
Originally I went into Chemistry to be a patent attorney I ended up doing so many other things instead. Chemistry has so many applications in different fields. My brother in law majored in Chemistry and did research on polymer science, his work now involves making computer simulations of molecular models. My husband also studied science (at Brooklyn College as well- where we met) and for a while he was creating science study programs for medical students and is now a physician himself. From administrative jobs, to positions in law, teaching, industry, marketing there are a ton of options with a Chemistry degree so don’t be afraid to to explore and find your niche.
No matter how you use your chemistry degree finding passion in what you do and making that evident in your work is the trick. I wish you all the best and tremendous success.