Alternative Chem Careers: Parrot Trainer/Researcher

April 24th, 2013

I like listening to the audio of PBS television shows as background noise, because (i) I’m cheap, (ii) it’s free, and (iii) it keeps me in tip-top shape for pub quiz tournaments. I was listening to an old episode of NOVA ScienceNOW on the intelligence of animals, when a profile of Alex the Parrot piqued my interest. Alex was world-famous for his incredible—for a bird—ability to speak, recognize objects, and count.

Fast-Forward to 37:53

Alex died in 2007, so this profile was more about his trainer, Irene Pepperberg. Narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sexy science voice really grabbed my attention when he summarized Pepperberg’s educational background:

Growing up in 1950’s Brooklyn, Irene initially set out to study chemistry, first at MIT, and then as a graduate student at Harvard. But in 1974, halfway through her Ph.D., a new television series changed everything.

[Cut to an ancient episode of NOVA about training apes to use sign language.]

With her Ph.D. in hand, Irene turned her back on chemistry and set out to begin a career in biology, at Purdue University. Her first stop: the pet store.

I love keeping track of people who’ve ditched chemistry and had fantastically successful “alternative” careers. Maggie Thatcher was a research chemist prior to becoming the first female Prime Minister of the UK. Joel Godard got a degree in chemistry at Emory and would later become the long-time announcer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Jerry Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before he became a real estate mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Cindy Crawford started out as a ChemE major before becoming a supermodel.

A closer inspection of Irene Pepperberg’s history reveals that she appears to have worked on boranes with Nobel laureate Bill Lipscomb at Harvard. It’s quite a jump from boranes to parrot training, but Pepperberg really made a splash and blazed new trails in the world of biology.

It’s always nice to have examples of wildly successful people who invested many years getting a Ph.D. in chemistry and later decided to leave the field. Such a decision takes a lot of courage, and I think many graduates feel needlessly ashamed of opting to leave the bench.

9 Responses to “Alternative Chem Careers: Parrot Trainer/Researcher”

  1. Howard Peters Says:


    How could you omit the new Pope Francis?

    Howard Peters

  2. David Eisenberg Says:

    My personal favorite ex-chemist is Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a prominent Jewish-Israeli scholar and author [‘…has been hailed by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar”‘, according to Wikipedia]. He peppers his books with scientific analogies, which are always refreshingly accurate and to the point.

  3. Bertrand Guillaume Says:

    another one : Angela Merkel has a PhD in quantum chemistry, now leading Germany.

  4. Joe Q. Says:

    Angela Merkel’s husband is also a chemist (and still works in academia AFAIK).

    I didn’t know about R’ Adin Steinsaltz — I am a fan of his work and am actually reading one of his books at the moment.

    Isabel Bayrakdarian, a well-known Canadian opera singer who has performed at the Met and won a bunch of international competitions, has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.

    Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, was a well-known chemist in the early 20th century who worked out the production of acetone by bacterial fermentation.

  5. alexandrian Says:

    Infamous former DC mayor Marion Barry has an MS in Chemistry and spent time in the PhD programs at Kansas and Tennessee before quitting to become a fulltime civil rights activist.

  6. Paul Says:

    @Howard: How could I forget so soon?

    @alexandrian: The bismuth-technetium-hydrogen alloy set him up!

  7. Howard Peters Says:


    On the other hand,

    Avogadro was an ecclesiastical lawyer before his work /advances in science.

    Lavoisier was a lawyer and tax collector before his work in chemistry..
    … and did he lose his head because of his tax collector activities/reputation..?

    Howard Peters retired IP lawyer in the Silicon Valley

    Many of us were chemists before we became lawyers. Which is our first love…?
    & I do share a birthday with THE IRON LADY… ? Go figure??

  8. Bertrand guillaume Says:

    Lavoisier was kill during the Terror in 1794 because :
    – he was one of the 28 “general farmer” (privat tax colector) wich made him very rich. And rich + french revolution = severed head
    – At some point the revolutionnary army decided to take all the foreign possession in paris, Lavoisier took on him the protection of Louis Lagrange, swiss matematician. The later revolutionnary tribunal didn’t really appreciate it and this was part of his accusation.

    Lagrange said “It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century.”

  9. Howard Peters Says:

    To all… Old Japanese proverb…..?

    “Nail which sticks up …gets hammered…”

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