Research experiene adds “credibility and fluency” for alum’s unique career path

Eleanor Rolfe Nelsen: Ph.D., 2014 (Landis Group)

Recently we asked some of our alumni to reflect on their experience at UW. Here’s what Eleanor Rolfe Nelsen had to say.

Do you remember what brought you to UW–Madison’s Department of Chemistry?

Eleanor Nelsen and Stefan Dumas, ICTAS, research on fireworks safety, with the dummy head he uses to measure eye impact.

I wanted a graduate program where exceptional scientists worked in a supportive environment. When I visited this department, everyone I met was friendly and welcoming, with a genuine sense of community. The students seemed to encourage each other rather than competing, the faculty radiated enthusiasm, and there were multiple research groups I thought I would be happy to call home. That combination of warmth and excellence convinced me that this was the right place for me.

Where are you working now and what is your current title?

I’m the senior research development coordinator at Virginia Tech.

What importance did UW–Madison Chemistry have in your career path?

I will always be grateful for an advisor who supported me when I wanted to explore alternate career paths. I had realized that a faculty position or typical industry job weren’t the right tracks for me, and Clark encouraged me to finish the Ph.D. and pursue my curiosity about science writing in parallel. That extracurricular exploration eventually led me to a career in university communications and now research development – both roles in which my doctoral degree has been a huge asset. It’s thanks largely to his encouragement and flexibility that, today, I have both a career that suits me well and a degree that allows me to be more successful at it.

Eleanor Nelsen interviewing science journalist Ed Yong and aerosol expert Linsey Marr about their vital communications work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yong has won a Pulitzer prize for his pandemic reporting; Marr received a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work.

When you think of the Department of Chemistry, what key memory comes to mind?

Working late in lab watching the sun set outside Shain Tower.

What would you like our current students to know about what they might do with a degree in chemistry?

My postgraduate positions have hardly ever intersected with chemistry, but the tools I developed as a graduate student – to approach unfamiliar subjects, interpret academic publications, appreciate the value of accuracy and precision, and formulate a position and support it with evidence – have consistently served me well. My PhD has opened doors for me in ways I didn’t necessarily expect when I defended my dissertation. For virtually any job in a university setting, for example, research experience will enhance your credibility and fluency. The knowledge you pick up in graduate school may not necessarily be transferable to a new career path, but the skills will hold their value. Have faith in that.