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Job Rijssenbeek: Balancing Science and Life

A 1994 Westinghouse finalist was headed for a career in academia, then had second thoughts after realizing he wanted to spend more time with family

FINALIST YEAR: 1994

HIS PROJECT: Making molecules that can be used to create chemicals out of oil and purify water

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Job Rijssenbeek's Long Island high school, Ward Melville, took a proactive approach to earning its students finalist nods in the Westinghouse (or Intel) Science Talent Search. Its "West Prep" program recruited students in 10th grade, taught them research techniques, and helped them pick a mentor. Students would enter their results in high-profile science fairs and contests, including Westinghouse. For Rijssenbeek, that gave him an excuse to do more chemistry.

"Chemistry was my favorite class," Rijssenbeek says. "I like the way that you can abstract chemistry in terms of relatively simple interactions between atoms. Knowing a few simple rules, you can elicit this beautiful range of different kinds of behaviors you get in chemistry."

So he sought out a chemistry project. His father was (and is) a physics professor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, N.Y. Rijssenbeek went to the university's chemistry department and knocked on doors, eventually finding solid-state chemist John Parise. Together, the two worked to make analogs of zeolites—porous molecules with large holes in their structures—out of tin sulfide. Zeolites (made of aluminum, silicon and oxygen) are sometimes used to help other reactions along when scientists are creating chemicals out of oil; they can also be used to purify water. But Rijssenbeek wasn't looking at the practical applications. "The point was to see if we could do it," he says. He also wanted to see if the structures looked any different than the more standard versions.

Rijssenbeek's work won him a finalist spot in the 1994 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. It was a good year for Ward Melville High; classmate Todd Hod was also a finalist.

THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: Rijssenbeek's award established him as a serious young researcher. "It opened the door for me to go to Princeton," he says. "In terms of GPA, I wasn't near the top of where they normally pick." There, he studied chemistry. He earned his PhD at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., doing his thesis on perovskite ruthenates, a group of molecules that have unique magnetic and electronic properties such as superconductivity when combined with other molecules.

He started out planning to go the academic route, like his father, but he had second thoughts after meeting his wife during graduate school. "I started to think more about family and saw, especially with young faculty, how much time they had to invest in their work," he says. "I felt like I wanted to spend more time doing other things apart from chemistry. That made me think more about industry." After finishing his PhD in 2002, he took a job at General Electric's Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna, N.Y.

WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: Rijssenbeek is still with GE. As a father, he admits that his view of industry as a bastion of work–life balance was "naive," but he loves his job. "It's a good mix here of being able to do fundamental science, but also be goal driven, with a product in mind," he says. "I feel I can actually impact daily life." He spent his first few years working on ways to store hydrogen for energy, but that project was put on the back burner because it seemed unlikely to deliver a profit in the short-term. But now he's working on the batteries for GE's new hybrid locomotive—"a 200-ton engine wherein the battery system captures braking energy and thereby reduces fuel consumption by 10 percent," notes Glen Merfeld, Rijssenbeek's supervisor at GE. The project has benefited from Job's "strong technical foundation," he says. "Job has an incredible passion for science and technology." It's launching next year, which means long hours, although with a nearly three-year-old, along with a five-month-old at home, Rijssenbeek jokes, "work feels like relaxation."

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