Marina Chow: An Inspired Chemist

Marina Chow: An Inspired Chemist

Marina Chow didn’t always intend to be a scientist. When she arrived at Smith College from her native Singapore in 1997, she was pre-med all the way. But then, one day in her freshman year, her general chemistry instructor pulled her aside and encouraged her to consider chemistry as a career.

Chow, now a senior scientist at DuPont Industrial Biosciences, said that she laughed because at the age of 15, she’d flunked high-school chemistry. She thinks now that a rote teaching style flummoxed her. “But in college, all of a sudden it all made sense — and it was wonderful.” Chow was inspired by her professors to switch to chemistry, and never looked back.

Upon graduating, Chow interviewed at a pharmaceutical company, “during the job interview they were very candid that if you didn’t have a PhD, there were limited options for career progression,” she said. That pushed Chow to undertake a 6½-year PhD program at Stanford.

Academic Intentions

Chow intended at first to enter academia. But she changed her mind after learning more about jobs in industry. Upon getting her PhD in 2008, Chow was thrilled to land a job at Genencor (now DuPont Industrial Biosciences) to manage the Process Analytical lab in Palo Alto, California. She loved the company and enjoyed completing papers from her graduate work.

Room to Grow

The great thing about DuPont is that “there are so many options,” says Chow. She believes you can do whatever interests you. To prove her point, Chow recalls the time she was offered the chance to work with customers to troubleshoot why a product wasn’t performing well at their plant. Working with the customer, she had a major “aha”: the lab team was not measuring the product concentration correctly. Together, they revised the protocol to solve the issue.

She was soon named project leader, and gradually evolved into developing biofuel applications — conceiving new products, and bringing promising ones from R&D to market. Today, Chow is considered one of the industry’s experts in that area.

“I am really grateful that my managers have given me these opportunities — and I always make sure to run with them,” Chow says. She gets enormous satisfaction from the science itself — and, particularly, from helping those around her achieve their goals.

“My greatest achievement thus far is doing work that not only drives my own success, but success for everyone on the project,” Chow says. She always makes sure that the people on her team get the recognition they deserve — and the mentoring they need. “My greatest successes are when I pull others along when I go down a good path,” she says.

Encouraging Other Women in STEM

Chow admits the path for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields can be difficult. So how would Chow seek to inspire more young women to enter STEM careers? “We need to encourage girls not to be afraid of science. And we need women in leadership positions — girls need the images of women in lab coats, women winning Nobel prizes — to inspire them,” she says.

A STEM career can be extraordinarily fulfilling, says Chow. “When I was in college, like most young people, I wanted to change the world,” Chow says. She still feels that way. But now Chow realizes that this can be done in lots of ways — like helping a company increase its ethanol yields or successfully transferring a new biofuel process from R&D into the field. Climate change is one of the great issues facing society today. “At DuPont, I’m doing things that will ultimately impact everyone,” she says.