Dr. Candice Umer is a CDC Clinical Chemist and co-founder of the Coalition for Black Mass Spectrometrists.
Dr. Ulmer is an accomplished and talented early career mass spectrometer, with a number of first-author papers and over 30 peer-reviewed papers published. Not only does she get to use the analytical technique she loves, she gets to do it in her dream job!
Mass spectrometry (MS) analysis of proteins measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions to identify and quantify molecules in simple and complex mixtures.
Dr. Ulmer graduated from the College of Charleston in 2012 with a B.S. in Chemistry and Biochemistry, where she began working with mass spec under the direction of Dr. Wendy Cory. Dr. Ulmer went on to earn her PhD in Chemistry as a McKnight Doctoral Fellow from the University of Florida in Dr. Richard Yost’s research group.
Dr. Candice Ulmer was a NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] NRC Post-doctoral Research Associate after earning her PhD, where she was involved with multi-omic UHPLC-HRMS method development, lipidomics interlaboratory studies, and environmental exposure monitoring on human/marine life. While at NIST, she published 10 peer-reviewed articles and designed a software (LipidPioneer) that generated exact masses for over 60 lipid classes!
Dr. Ulmer is currently a Clinical Chemist at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in Atlanta, GA. Her responsibilities as Project Lead and Acting Chief of the Clinical Reference Laboratory for Cancer, Kidney, and Bone Disease Biomarkers in the Clinical Chemistry Branch include the accurate measurement of chronic disease biomarkers (e.g., steroid and protein hormones) and the assessment of clinical analytical methods in patient care.
As a black woman in chemistry, Dr. Ulmer has faced both racism and sexism throughout her career. While she was able to seek out mentors who could provide her support and guidance, she also served on the ASMS diversity committee in an effort to increase diversity at conferences and ASMS supported events.
She is a co-chair of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) clinical chemistry interest group and publication committee, and assumes appointed/elected memberships in six committees for other scientific organizations that include the International Metabolomics Society, the Metabolomics Quality Assurance and Quality Control Consortium, Metabolomics of North America, and the American Chemical Society.
Who inspires you in STEM?
My mother, a retired educator, inspired me to pursue a career in STEM. She recognized my interest in science very early. She always mentioned that even as a toddler, I enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together. She enrolled me in STEM summer programs at HBCUs as early as the 7th grade. While there, I witnessed women and minorities in leadership positions as scientists. I began shadowing graduate students in chemistry-related research projects and fell in love with conducting research in a laboratory setting.
What was your journey to a PhD like?
I transitioned to my graduate program at the University of Florida immediately after undergrad at the College of Charleston. I remember having to spend weekends in the laboratory culturing cells, cramming for qualifying exams, and spending many nights running samples on the mass spectrometer. While challenging at times, programs such as the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program and the Office of Graduate Minority Programs (OGMP) made my journey quite obtainable within 4 years. I graduated with 3 co-PIs, a patent, 2 book chapters, and a first-author paper.
How did you get into mass spectrometry?
I began conducting research during my junior year at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) with Dr. Wendy Cory, an analytical chemist, as a component of the McNair Scholars Program. Our research project involved investigating how NSAIDs degraded after exposure to light in the natural environment using high performance liquid chromatography – mass spectrometry (UHPLC-MS). This was my first introduction to the technique. I really enjoyed it and decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Florida under the direction of Dr. Richard A. Yost, the inventor of the triple quadrupole and world-renowned researcher in the field of mass spectrometry.
What is it like to work for the CDC?
Working at the CDC has always been my dream job. I feel blessed and honored to hold a position at the CDC as a Clinical Research Chemist. It’s surreal knowing that my research studies and standardization efforts are making a difference not only domestically, but internationally in the field of clinical chemistry and translational medicine.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in the analysis of small molecules in relationship to an external perturbation such as a disease (e.g., metabolomics and lipidomics). As a result, I study chronic disease biomarkers and participate in efforts to standardize the way that these small molecule biomarkers are measured clinically.
What challenges have you faced in your career?
Unfortunately, as an early-career African-American female chemist, I’ve encountered overt acts of racism and sexism. I’ve been told that women don’t traditionally perform certain tasks in the laboratory and I’ve been called racial slurs while at work.
What is it like for you when you publish a paper? How does it feel when your work is published?
I think every researcher always remembers their 1st first-author paper. Publishing gives such a tremendous feeling of success. I often share the electronic version of the paper with friends/family, even though they may not understand the topic area. Publishing in general requires a lot of work to generate enough reproducible data, convert the raw data into figures/tables/charts, interpret trends, and summarize the results. Because of the amount of time and effort spent generating manuscripts, the concerns from reviewers during the peer-review process can almost feel personal, but I usually try to appreciate that the reviewers are here to make the paper more well-rounded. After having published over 25 peer-reviewed articles, I would love to say that it gets easier with time, but I haven’t really experienced that.
What’s been your most exciting experience in STEM?
My most exciting experience in STEM was the day that I printed my 275 page dissertation at the age of 25 after 4 years of graduate school. I remember having to print 5 copies on the printer in the laboratory at one time. The printer generated so much heat that it shut off after printing the last copy of my dissertation. The 5 dissertation copies were so heavy that I had to have another graduate student help me carry the documents into the building after taking them to get bound before my defense.
What’s something about your field that you wish others knew about?
While there is a steep learning curve associated with mass spectrometry, anyone can learn the technique.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I live by the following quote by Gandhi: “Every worthwhile accomplishment, big or little, has its stages of drudgery and triumph: a beginning, a struggle, and a victory.”
Dr. Candice Ulmer is always looking ahead and using her experiences to empower others through STEM outreach. Seeing a scientist as in love with her work and research as Dr. Ulmer could get anyone excited about science!