Diffracting a Career as a X-ray Crystallographer

Today, we had a chance to catch up with Dr. Glenn P.A. Yap where he serves as staff crystallographer for the University of Delaware’s department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. With over 638 published papers, Dr. Glenn P.A. Yap currently resides as the 3rd most published crystallographer.

What is your current position? How long have you been at this position?
I am the crystallographer for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the University of Delaware since 2003. I was also appointed Assistant Professor on 2011.


Dr. Yap looks on as students dabble in crystallography. In this picture you can see an eager student looking for a single crystal using the microscope. The amber colored crystals can be seen on the monitor to the right.

What does a typical day entail?  There is a great variety from day to day but I suppose there are common elements. I usually check my email correspondence when I come in to see if there are items that I need to reply or act on, or to supply information. I routinely check the X-ray laboratory to see if the diffractometer is doing fine, if liquid nitrogen is sufficient, and if new samples arrived. I would set up an experiment and solve the previous day’s data collected. I check if students in the various synthetic laboratories, especially those that ran experiments the previous day and those scheduled to run experiments currently, need any assistance in structure solving or data collection. If I’m teaching that term, I’d have to review and update my lecture notes and conduct classes. If I have pending papers that I am editing for Acta Crystallographica C, I’ll have to read and evaluate submissions and invite reviewers. If I am submitting a paper, I have to review the structures, check for similar compounds and write an analysis. I might have a meeting with the university radiation safety committee or the department technical services committee. Students and faculty would often stop by my office to discuss crystallography and chemistry.

When did you realize your scientific calling? I think I always wanted to do something in the sciences but it was the middle of my third year in high school that probably clinched that I wanted to be in chemistry. The crystallography was something of a happy accident since I needed to do some crystallography in graduate school. We had a diffractometer but nobody in-house to operate it.

What are some aspects of your job you do not like to do? Most gratifying? I think the most frustrating thing is when I am explaining some idea that I consider practically self-evident but I somehow fail to communicate. The most gratifying aspect would have to be when I see the proverbial light bulb turn on and the other person catches on. I also enjoy being surrounded by intelligent people that allows for informal scientific discourse every day.

What are the most challenging aspects of running a X-ray crystallography lab? The greatest challenge is maintaining the balance between being efficient while being true to the educational mission.

From a historical point of view, how has technology impacted your field? Well, the whole field of crystallography is technological, in my opinion. The underlying principles have not changed since they were discovered (after all, the Bragg law was first stated in 1913!) but we have had quantum jumps in instrumentation, crystallographic software and computer hardware. Just to illustrate, a sample that would have taken me a week to collect data on and solve when I was a student could now be completed in a few hours.

Where do you think future will hold for your field? Science altogether? As long as people need to visualize groups of atoms to understand, crystallography would remain a powerful and relevant analytical science. The scientific method is so engrained as a reliable method of inquiry that science should continue to flourish so long as humanity exists.

How has your upbringing shape you? I suppose being brought up with books on various topics, this was before the popularity of the Internet mind, encouraged a lot of thinking.

Who is your role model, and why? I suppose my role model would be a composite of science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and scientists like Michael Faraday. I suppose I would like to emulate Faraday’s excellence as an experimentalist and his ability to convey ideas quite simply. It might not be commonly known but Asimov who authored science fiction classics was also a biochemistry professor at Brown University. As a group, scientists instill logic while fiction writers allow us to dream.

What advice do you have for young student deciding whether or not to embark in a career in the sciences? As in any major life decisions, one must figure out what one values most at the core and select the path consistent. If you are the type of person that likes to think logically and imagine, I suspect science might be a good career choice. So find out as much as you can about the potential scientific field and see if this is something that would make you happy to explore. I suppose this is a long winded way to say “Follow your passion”.

For more information about Glenn and the X-ray crystallography department at the University of Delaware can be found at http://www.chem.udel.edu/x-ray-crystallography-laboratory


Dr. Blog

 Dr. Blog holds a PhD in chemistry and draws on his years of industrial and life experience to offer honest career advice for the advancement of young scientists.