Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Processing Division Distinguished Service Award Winner Feature – Scott Bloomer

Q&A with Scott Bloomer, winner of the Processing Division Distinguished Service Award

A brief bio: Scott Bloomer started his research career in 1973 in the laboratories of Honeywell, Incorporated doing research in humidity sensors. Since then he has been privileged to do research on smoke detectors, biosensors, enzymatic interesterification, basic oilseed processing, and the application of enzymes to milk compounds. He spent several years drafting and defending patent applications and performing freedom-to-operate studies in the fats and oils field. He has written a dozen peer-reviewed papers and is a contributing editor for the AOCS trade magazine, INFORM.  Bloomer is the Director of Technical Services at the American Oil Chemists’ Society. Bloomer’s hobbies include martial arts, old British cars, and growing elderflowers.

1) How did it feel to win the Processing Division Distinguished Service Award?

I was pretty surprised. I knew there was a movement afoot because when you work at AOCS, you hear things. People that you have not heard from for a while suddenly ask you for your resume. I have been on the nominating side a number of times, so I knew something was cooking. I thought, “surely there are people that are much more deserving than I,” so I was very surprised. You know the funny thing about is when you get to be a certain age or certain level of experience, it is terrifying because you realize that the real experts have retired. So, it is like you are a tree growing up in this forest and you see all these great tall trees and you admire them and admire them. They slowly get cut down and suddenly you are one of the tall trees and you think, “We are in trouble now.”

2) How did you get started in the field that you are studying or working in?

I consider biotechnology my home. I spent much of my career there and it is very close to my heart.

I got started in the field when I was working at a university in Sweden many years ago in the 80s. I came to that job, because they were advertising for a research assistant and I had more experience than anyone else. It was for a biosensor project, an ethanol sensor, and I had done research with smoke sensors and humidity sensors back in my misspent youth. I was hired there, and I worked there for about six or eight months and the professor told me he had heard good things about my work and asked me how would I like to do a Ph.D.? So, I thought that was a pretty good idea and I was then given the choice of three different areas to work with. 

The professor had me work for six weeks in fermentation, six weeks in aqueous two-phased separations, and then six weeks in enzyme engineering. It was very clear by the end that I should really do the enzyme engineering, using enzymes to catalyze reactions that are commonly catalyzed by chemicals. So, that is the field in which I got my Ph.D. I was then hired and worked at Cargill doing different things. 

3) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study or your career?

Most of my career was spent working in industry, but grad school prepares you poorly for working in industry. Grad school prepares you for working in academia. From there, it is a short jump to working in government, as many of the goals and imperatives are the same. In industrial research, figuring out what really was important when given a project was very difficult. One of the keys that made me a successful scientist was developing that ability, but there was no one who really could tell you how to do that. 

What most people coming out of grad school do is, “This is what my boss told me needs to be done, but this other thing is what I want to do. So, I am going to figure out how to get done what I want to do and what I am really interested in, in the context of what my boss wants.” Grad school didn’t teach me to stop and think how this fits into the bigger picture. It is really key to consider what questions your boss is being asked and the imperatives for your boss – that was a major challenge I had to overcome. 

4) What advice can you share on how you have achieved success thus far in your career, whether that be entering a graduate program or a lengthy career in a prestigious position?

Anybody that knows me knows that this is my main thing that I push; “ask the right question,” If you ask the right question, you are halfway to the answer. If you take a brand-new researcher, just out of university, and you give them a problem, they will get the answer, but if you take somebody else who has learned how to ask the right question, you give the problem, they will get the same answer. The difference is, the first person will do 50 experiments, the second person will do five experiments because they take the time to figure out the right questions. So, that is one key. 

Another is you must read the literature. There is this common phenomenon, that is common to humans, that we start out in a field, we start learning it, it is all new and exciting to us so therefore it is new and exciting to the world. We discover something and it is really cool. I had an experience where I was reviewing a PowerPoint presentation for the annual meeting. Presumably, research done in the last year, showed certain results as if the discovery was new, I took a binder off my shelf,  opened it and found a paper from 1991 that taught the same thing. You have to read the old literature, to avoid reinventing the wheel. It may mean reading bound books, not everything is digital, but just because it is not digital does not mean it is not real.

Some that really brought this home to me happened when I did my Ph.D. defense., The field I was working in, enzymatic interesterification of lipids, was very new at the time. There were only five labs in the world working on it, but now it has become a billion pounds a year industry. I got to be there in the very beginning – this was kind of fun because anything you do is publishable. So. at my defense I was talking about all this new stuff and my opponent is talking about the new stuff.
I had made friends with an old professor in an adjacent department focusing on physiological responses to lipids and I asked him to be on the review board for my thesis defense. Near the end, he stood up to say something. He put  an overhead onto the projector and said, “You all are talking about this like this is something new, but I just want to show you that this has been done before.” He flipped on the light and showed a figure from one of his papers.  I recognized the figure because I had read the paper – it had been accepted for publication the day I was born. So, I said, “Yeah, you are right, we all act like it is brand new”, but the lesson is you have to reach the old literature. 

5) How has AOCS helped you in your career?

One of the things that happens when you are working for a company, university, or government is you are kind of in a tunnel. Your research group is so big and by its nature, it must be very focused and so it is very easy to go feel isolated. AOCS gives you a platform where you can speak about some of your work. At the annual meeting, for example, you can give a lecture on your work and of the people that attend, half of them will be interested, and many of them will know something about the topic and some of them will speak with you after or at a later event. The attendee may approach and say, “You said this about this particular temperature, have you tried this temperature?” or “That was a really great experiment, I’m going to go try that with this other matrix.” It liberates one from the limitations of your own context and it puts you in a world context. 

To expand on that, you see what other scientists are doing and somewhere, at least the industrial scientists have an economic driver. For me, I am very mercenary and always have been in my research. I always want to do something that can generate a product that can be sold. I do not want to just know more about how changing this particular type of lipid makes a different kind of emulsion. You have to be able to translate that into something practical and saleable. So, when you attend an AOCS meeting, you can listen to these talks and ask yourself or the speaker, “Why are they talking about that? Are there any commercial applications?” 

Another benefit is, I really like reviewing and editing papers. Being with JAOCS for so many years, I was a reviewer first, then an associate editor and then I was asked to be a senior associate editor for Biotechnology for a year when the senior associate editor became the AOCS President. Working on the journals gives you the opportunity to see a lot of science. 

6) Can you tell us about your work at AOCS?

There are three pieces that must be managed. One of them is the Laboratory Proficiency Program, another is the Certified Reference Material program, and the third is the AOCS Official Methods. The rest of the Technical Services team manages the first two and they do an outstanding job. 

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