Former chemistry major William “Hunter” Woodward ’06 aims to improve lives through scientific exploration as a researcher at Dow Chemical Core Research and Development. His passion for discovering new and innovative sustainability solutions has him working on projects both in the lab and traveling the world.
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?
The diversity of my Dickinson education has proven advantageous in often conspicuous but sometimes surprising ways. Ignoring the obvious benefits of basic introductions to business and finance, the unexpected two that often find their way into my life are Greek and Roman mythology and East Asian religions. Countless references to these two topics are buried just beneath the surface of scientific terms and anecdotes. Additionally, the nearly complete absence of multiple-choice questions during my exams at Dickinson forced me to improve my critical thinking, writing and presentation skills. It is said that if one cannot speak well then you should assume they cannot write well, and if they cannot write well you should assume that they cannot think well. (Misquoted from George Orwell but the spirit is there.) My liberal-arts
education at Dickinson taught me to think critically, write carefully and speak confidently.
What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?
My favorite activity while at Dickinson was playing with the ice hockey team. I was a fourth-string last-resort player with no real skillset, but my talented teammates who had played since they could walk were always supportive of my development and my enthusiasm. It taught me that the key to a fulfilling activity was the support of those around you, even during failure and hardship. I try to use these lessons to always support younger scientists in their endeavors and to recognize and reward the lessons learned from failures. The friendships that I built on the hockey team last to this day and I text with old teammates nearly every week.
How has Dickinson’s focus on global education impacted your life or career since graduation?
I took a summer role as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates
student funded by the National Science Foundation at California State University, Fullerton, under the mentorship of Professor Zhuangjie Li. This was my first real exposure to the life of a scientist: the very late nights (technically mornings) in the lab, inclusive and respectful collaboration with a diverse group of colleagues and the truly exhilarating feeling when you are the first person to ever observe an experimental result.
What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?
My time as a DJ on WDCV-FM
is something that has greatly affected my personality and my music education. It was one of the first times in my life when I was granted autonomy in content creation and trusted with a literal key to a castle (by which I mean the 1970 album Cucumber Castle
by the Bee Gees).
How do you stay involved with Dickinson?
Other than the occasional Alumni Weekend and close communication with a select few old friends, my most recent activity with Dickinsonians was to present on my perspectives of a career in industry to chemistry students. I really enjoyed sharing my major career watersheds and certain reflections on those decisions to young scientists approaching similar options.
How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?
The pursuit of novel scientific research is something that I first became excited about at Dickinson, and it persists to this day. This desire to discover was nurtured by my Dickinson professors both inside and outside of the Department of Chemistry, and by my senior year, I knew that I wanted to continue into a research and development-oriented field rather than one with strictly defined boundaries. Hypothesis-driven research coupled with my passion for the creation and discovery of the new slowly converted me into a devout acolyte of the scientific method, and I can never seem to satisfy the urge to drive forward. After graduate school, I chose to enter the private sector because I felt their research and development programs had a great combination of short-term projects with tangible products and long-term projects with lofty goals aimed at improving lives. The concept of a cold, evil industrial corporation is nonexistent in my experiences at Dow, which acts as a leader in its key pillars of sustainability, inclusion and innovation, all while striving to help its customers do the same.
What does your current work entail?
As a researcher in industrial research and development I work on a myriad of projects related to sustainability. These include everything from next-generation plastics to making cars lighter, electric vehicles safer and our electric grid more efficient, to the reduction of waste and cost of large-scale industrial processes. I have worked on next-generation OLED displays, pharmaceutical-grade cellulosics and polymer-modified bitumen for future asphalt technologies. Nearly every project is unique in a way that requires me to learn a new chemistry or field. The combination of my liberal-arts education and communication style, my experiences creating new content at the radio station and my hockey-inspired belief that unwavering support of teammates through triumphs and failures always results in better science and a more fulfilling career.
What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?
Being a scientist means being closely engaged with the scientific community as a whole. This requires you to travel the world meeting with peers and colleagues in order to discuss scientific findings and formulate new hypotheses. During my five years at Penn State and eleven years at Dow R&D, I have traveled to England, Poland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Colorado, Virginia, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, all to meet with talented scientists and discuss both my work and theirs. Sometimes the discussions have led to new discoveries or collaborations. Other times the discussions have convinced me that I was very, very wrong. Regardless of the outcome, each trip has been equally memorable, and the friendships I have formed during these travels are as important to me as any scientific discoveries. When forging my education at Dickinson I never dreamed that my career would take me all over the world to do what I love most—talk science and make friends!
Published August 1, 2022