Meet the YCC: Alex Goranov

Meet Dr. Alex Goranov, analytical chemist at Old Dominion University and avid traveler. Alex is a Member of the national Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) and serves on the Governance, Interface, and Outreach (GIO) subcommittee. Alex’s profile is part of “Meet the YCC”, a series of blog posts highlighting YCC members and associates and what they do both in and outside of ACS.

Alex Goranov

YCC Member

YCC subcommittee: Governance, Interface, and Outreach (GIO)

Other ACS Involvement:

Member of ACS Committee on Nomenclature, Terminology and Symbols (NTS); YCC liaison to the Executive Committee of the Division of Energy and Fuels (ENFL); YCC liaison to the Executive Committee of the Division of Geochemistry (GEOC); Regular presentation presenter and symposium organized at the Division of Environmental Chemistry (ENVR)

Education

B.S., Chemistry, Ramapo College of New Jersey

Ph.D., Chemistry, Old Dominion University

What is your favorite project you have been a part of with the YCC?

On the YCC, we have the opportunity to participate in numerous diverse projects, making it a uniquely enriching experience. I equally love all of them.

I am involved in two mentorship projects. One of them focuses on mentorship within the YCC. One aspect of this project involves onboarding, which ensures a smooth transition for any new YCC member joining the committee. Given the multitude of activities, subcommittees, procedures, and operations within the YCC, the initial experience can be overwhelming. However, through the orientation procedures we have developed, we aim to make this transition much smoother. The other part of this internal mentorship program focuses on outboarding, which ensures a smooth transition of YCC members out of the committee and potentially into another governance entity, such as another committee. This project aspect is still under development.

The second mentorship project I am working on is an external program with other ACS entities. Previously, YCC members were paired with members of the Senior Chemists Committee (SCC), and the YCC-SCC pairs would meet a few times a year to discuss life, academia, career, and anything related or unrelated, with the goal of facilitating an exchange of information and experiences between younger and senior chemists. We are currently redesigning the program and considering partnering with other ACS entities, such as the Women Chemists Committee (WCC).

What is your favorite part about being on the YCC?

The fact that what we do matters, and we can witness our individual impacts on ACS and beyond. Despite being a small group of about 30 people, our committee affects thousands of ACS members. Moreover, the initiative of a single individual can result in significant changes for the greater good. For instance, an idea from a single YCC member could lead to the creation of a major program or event that has a substantial impact on the younger chemist community and beyond.

Find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Here, I am in front of the “Proud to be a Chemist” sign at the Spring 2023 ACS Meeting in Indianapolis.

What is something you want every younger chemist to know?

The best advice I’ve received is that perseverance is key. Never give up, regardless of the circumstances or what others say. To remember that hard work always pays off in the end. During my undergraduate education, I spoke to many faculty members about their PhD journeys and the challenges they experienced. Their advice became particularly meaningful when I began my PhD education and encountered failed experiments, broken equipment, or faulty hypotheses. Indeed, all the effort paid off in the end.

I wish more young chemists took advantage of the potential mentors around them and asked questions – not just about science, but about anything. It never hurts to ask a question. I’m certain I have asked my PhD advisor questions about any possible topic that exists out there – from taxes to politics, from NMR spin dynamics to whether he thinks aliens exist.

What is something you are most proud of?

I am most certainly proud of earning my PhD at 26, just 3.5 years after college graduation. Getting a PhD was a dream of mine for many years. It was a challenging yet incredibly enjoyable experience. I achieved this by spending six months researching potential PhD advisors and their scientific work. This was another invaluable piece of advice I received during my undergraduate education – that it is not about where (i.e., which school), but with whom (what faculty member) you are doing your PhD. I did not consider the locations of graduate schools and sent over 50 emails to faculty across the United States. I ended up applying to six schools in Florida, Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia – literally all over the U.S.! I ultimately chose to work with Dr. Pat Hatcher, whose research captivated me, at Old Dominion University. Consequently, my PhD felt more like a hobby than a “job” or “school,” and if given the chance, I would do it all over again.

Upon joining the Hatcher research group, I immersed myself in the lab from day one and produced data by the end of my first week. I eagerly sought feedback and constructive criticism from my advisor weekly, focusing on improving my multitasking, project and time management skills, and maintaining my happiness and contentment amidst scientific challenges and PhD hurdles (such as classes and teaching responsibilities).

Two main factors contributed to my speedy graduation. Firstly, I worked extensively, often dedicating 12-hour days, including weekends, driven by my love for my work. However, I do not recommend this approach to everyone, as burnout is a real risk. Secondly, I significantly increased my work efficiency by learning how to code. My research does not require programming, and I am far from being a computational scientist; I am an experimentalist often dealing with data easily worked up in Excel. However, some of our instruments output huge datasets that took quite a while to process manually by hand. For reference, it would usually take about 30 minutes to process one sample in Excel, and then working up the processed data using statistics or other means could take hours. I learned how to code and after a tough year of starting from scratch and googling “how to take the square root” or “how to plot a trendline”, I ended up becoming relatively proficient with the programming language MATLAB. Towards the end of my PhD, I was having my computer work up data overnight while I was getting some much needed sleep.

TL;DR – if you aim to graduate quickly, be ready to work hard and very long hours, and be open-minded to explore new ways to multitask and maximize your work efficiency. Maybe you will have to learn how to code, work in three fume hoods at once, or run four NMR spectrometers at the same time, but as I said, it will all pay off in the end.

Work hard, play hard – on the day of my Ph.D. defense, I was still running samples for a side project. Before leaving to celebrate my defense, I had to double-check that the HPLC was running smoothly and not leaking.

How has your career taken a unique or unexpected path?

After completing my PhD at Old Dominion University (ODU), I accepted a postdoctoral position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Initially, I left Norfolk, VA, thinking I would never come back. However, my time at RPI was brief. Despite the guidance of my advisor, Dr. Sasha Wagner, whom I consider one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, we struggled to secure funding to extend my postdoc beyond a year. I faced three options: remain at RPI as a departmental technician, take on a different postdoctoral position at University of Albany, or return at ODU to be a postdoc with my PhD advisor Pat Hatcher. Two things that are non-negotiable to me is that I must love my job and be happy with 99% of the associated tasks. Performing technician tasks as a primary responsibility didn’t seem like my thing. On the contrary, ODU had the unique opportunity for me to be a principal or co-principal investigator on NSF, NIH, and other grants. Several other factors influenced my decision, including salary (RPI offered a much higher salary), immigration conditions (I am a foreigner on a visa, and some locations are more favorable in this regard), weather (I hated the cold of upstate NY), the size of the community (RPI’s department was small), and the impact of this career move on my CV (some people say it does not look good if one does a postdoc where they did their PhD or has a short one-year postdoc). After careful consideration, I returned to ODU, where I am still based. I never thought I would be back in my doctoral stomping grounds and resume research with the Hatcher group. My colleagues and I now humorously refer to my time at RPI as my “postdoc sabbatical” with Sasha. While it was a difficult and controversial decision, I have no regrets. My professional and personal life have thrived — I have published several wonderful papers, with many more in various stages of publication; I am a principal investigator on two grants and co-principal investigator on two more; and I am surrounded by a wonderful group of people, including my PhD advisor, who is now my postdoc advisor, and I view him as a father figure. Any of these career paths would have had a downside, and I am fully content with the choice I made. Overall, my unexpected journey post-PhD graduation reinforces my belief that finding a job you love means you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

As an analytical chemist, I get to disassemble instruments and understand their workings, discover innovative ways to break them, and consequently, frequently find myself watching videos on YouTube to figure out how to fix them. Perseverance is key.

What are your favorite things to do for fun? 

I love science, so I work a lot for fun. When I get tired of that, because it is an intellectually draining hobby, I spend my free time cooking or learning about new foods. Recent activities include testing ten different recipes for okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake typically containing a ton of cabbage) and cleaning my kitchen because my Kimchi fermentation crock exploded. I also love dancing, and lately I have gotten crazy about country line dancing. Lastly, and most notably, my biggest hobby is traveling and everything associated with it – meeting new people, exploring diverse cultures, trying new cuisines, capturing pictures of unfamiliar sceneries, and dancing to unique styles of music. I love traveling internationally, but also domestically. The United States of America is the best country I have been to (out of 30+), and I am thankful for being able to call it home for the last 10 years. It is such a phenomenal country, with so many different places to see, with each state being like its own different country, with their different cultures and cuisines. So, if anyone is looking for me, I am either in the lab, cooking at home, dancing at the club, or nowhere to be found as I am on an adventure out of town.

Article by Olivia Wilkins, Ph.D.

Olivia Wilkins is an astrochemist and NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) Fellow at NASA Goddard. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Caltech and a BS in Chemistry and Mathematics from Dickinson College.