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Opening doors through the non-traditional Ph.D. pathway

MACR Alumni Spotlight: Barb DeButts

When Barb DeButts arrived at Virginia Tech in 2015, she already knew she was different than her peers in the Macromolecular Science and Engineering (MACR) Ph.D. program.

She possessed an undergraduate degree in fine arts and a decade of work experience in non-science or engineering fields, but she was ready for a new challenge.

"I didn't expect for me to make sense to everyone in the program," DeButts said. "That's something I had to earn and prove."

Barriers in the Workplace

Prior to Virginia Tech, DeButts worked in the construction industry. She started as an administrative assistant at a construction company specializing in residential and commercial glazing, and quickly earned greater responsibilities. Although she moved into operations management, her true goal was to learn the trade and become a glazer.

At first, the owner didn't think she, as a woman, could do the job. He only relented to watch her fail – which she did at first – but through her dogged persistence, DeButts picked up the skills.   

"I was the only woman he ever trained in his 42 years in the business as a glazer," DeButts said. "From there, I started running the company as his proxy because he was looking to retire."

Although DeButts had broken through the gender barrier in her company, she realized there were limitations to her career.

"As a woman in construction, I was limited," DeButts said. "It was always a fight to learn. Learning should be something that's open to everyone and doesn't have those boundaries or barriers. I realized that the only way to open every door is to get an education."

A woman stands in her lab while smiling.

Back to School

Although she hadn't taken a math or science course in 13 years, DeButts decided to carve out a path in a STEM field. After taking classes at Ocean County Community College, she completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Case Western Reserve University. For the REU summer program, she worked in the lab of Professor Ica Manas in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering.

The next logical step was to enroll in a formal engineering degree program, but she was uncertain of what type of engineering to pursue or if she would be accepted into a Ph.D. program.

"I applied to master's and second bachelor's programs in addition to Ph.D. programs because everybody said there's no way you'll get into a Ph.D. program with your background," DeButts said. "I applied predominantly to chemical engineering programs, but because I had worked in a polymer lab in the Macromolecular Science and Engineering department at Case, I knew I enjoyed the field. When I stumbled across the (MACR) website at Virginia Tech, I knew I had to apply."

DeButts presented a unique application and resume, but the MACR admissions committee recognized her potential and accepted her. 

As I went through the interview process, the phrase that kept coming up again and again was you need to work in cross-functional teams.

Adjusting to Graduate School

The fact that DeButts had experienced multiple career paths prior to graduate school has helped her maintain focus and dedication while completing her Ph.D.

"I didn't come to this decision to go to graduate school lightly. I left a full-time job and life in the real world to go back to school and pursue a new career," DeButts said.

Graduate school didn't start out easy for her, however. She originally started in the lab of Robert Moore, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the MACR program, but DeButts quickly realized this wasn't the right fit for her.

"The projects were really interesting, but I realized I liked chemistry in theory," DeButts said. "When it came to working on actual chemistry experiments, I didn't feel that joy I thought I would."

Thanks to the options available in the MACR program, Moore helped her find a new home in a more engineering-focused laboratory. She landed in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering with Professor Justin Barone.

For her dissertation work, DeButts has investigated agricultural proteins as reinforcing fillers in polymer composites. She has focused on optimizing the processing-property relationships of the reinforced systems. As sustainable materials, the proteins could present a renewable, less expensive, and better-performing filler for applications such as green tires or biodegradable flexible packaging.

A woman working with a lab instrument smiles at the camera.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

After completing the interview season in Fall 2018, DeButts received multiple job offers. She accepted a position as a Principal Investigator in Research and Development for DuPont's Tyvek group in Richmond, Virginia. Fittingly, she will once again be working in the Safety and Construction business.

Working in MII's interdisciplinary environment proved to be a great asset for potential employers.

"As I went through the interview process, the phrase that kept coming up again and again was you need to work in cross-functional teams," DeButts said. "The fact that I'm not relegated to a single department here or faculty from a single discipline has been really helpful."

As DeButts looks back at her time in Blacksburg, she admits it was extremely challenging but also says she wouldn't change any of it. Now with her doctorate, she has reached the goals she set when she decided to continue her education.  

"It really has been an honor and a privilege to be part of this program," DeButts said. "I am eternally grateful to Bob Moore and Tim Long and Chris Williams for having the foresight, or whatever it was, to bring me into this program given my unusual application.

"I've got a terminal degree in an engineering field in a great program. I just completed the interview season, and, as I went in, giving these research presentations, I realized I had achieved what I wanted. I opened all those doors."