Do you think only medical schools produce life-saving doctors? If I told you that chemical research saves lives, would thoughts of biochemistry and pharmaceuticals come to mind? Most people do not envision a battery scientist when they hear these terms, but over half a million lives have been saved or made better in part thanks to Dr. Curtis Holmes, Ph.D., Theoretical Chemistry. Since 1976, Dr. Holmes has been affiliated with Greatbatch Medical, a company specializing in batteries, electrodes, feedthroughs, capacitors, enclosures and other critical components for pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs). The path to his eventual career and the steps along the way might surprise you.
As a high school student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it was only natural for Dr. Holmes to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) for his undergraduate education. From 1961-1965, Dr. Holmes not only studied chemistry and conducted undergraduate research, he also joined the ROTC and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. After graduation, Dr. Holmes proceeded on to Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry under the direction of Dr. Robert Mortimer.
During his four years at IU, Dr. Holmes studied statistical mechanics; he spent his days solving complicated multivariable integrals and his evenings working with early edition mainframe computers. Much of his free time was devoted to his passion for music. While not in the chemistry building, Dr. Holmes attended music classes and even met his wife, a pianist, at the music school. This is not merely an anecdote; it played a bigger role in his career than anyone could have imagined at the time, but we will get back to that later.
Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1969, Dr. Holmes entered the army as a 1st lieutenant, a promotion received in graduate school. His first assignment was at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland as a chemist working on a project to detect chemical warfare agents. After one year at Edgewood, Dr. Holmes was promoted to the rank of captain and sent to Vietnam for a year where he maintained operations and trained technicians for detection equipment. As part of his overseas service, Dr. Holmes frequently flew on missions and was granted open fly orders to travel anywhere around the region. Once his tour of Vietnam ended, Dr. Holmes returned to the United States and accepted a postdoctoral position at his alma mater, LSU, where he studied electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy. This stint led to a position with the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (later changed to Calspan) in Buffalo, NY. Clearly, alternating from statistical mechanics in Indiana, to studying chemical warfare agents in Maryland, to operating detection equipment in an active warzone of Vietnam, to EPR spectroscopy in Louisiana, to research at defense laboratory is quite a transitional sequence but none of it appears to be leading to Dr. Holmes’ eventual career. And surprisingly, the connection leading up to his career came not through his chemistry background, but through his passion for music.
In 1976, after working at what is now Calspan for several years, Dr. Holmes met a man named Wilson Greatbatch through an interesting set of circumstances. During this time, Dr. Holmes was an organist for a church choir and, coincidentally, Mr. Greatbatch happened to sing in the very same choir. This story gets interesting because while Dr. Holmes was in the military, Mr. Greatbatch co-invented the first successfully implanted cardiac pacemaker and then subsequently founded Greatbatch, Inc. in 1970 to improve the battery technology for these devices. After their meeting, Mr. Greatbatch recruited Dr. Holmes to work for Greatbatch, Inc. and, he has been there ever since.
At Greatbatch, Dr. Holmes and his research team worked on technologies that have improved the lifetime and performance of the lithium-ion battery for pacemakers and ICDs while decreasing the size of the devices to be less obstructive to patients. The company strongly believes in close relationships with their clients and Dr. Holmes, along with other technical personnel, frequently travels the world explaining their products, answering questions, and presenting at technical conferences. In addition to those experiences, he has written five book chapters, published many peer-reviewed articles, and returns each year to IU to give a lecture about implantable-device batteries to undergraduates.
Meeting new people, continued learning, and travel are all benefits of a scientific career but to Dr. Holmes, the most rewarding part of his job is unquestionably the satisfaction that comes from developing technology that enhances the quality of life and even saves the lives of people around the world.
Dr. Holmes’ experience serves as a valuable lesson to all students: what you are doing now is, very likely, not what you will be doing in the future, and that should be embraced! In addition to the examples he has set, Dr. Holmes offers some direct advice for students.
With regards to graduate school, the professor you work with is much more important than the university you attend so be sure to find someone you connect with and can work with for five years because your research mentor will be the most important person in your academic career during graduate school. Here is his advice:
- Throughout all stages of your academic and professional career, flexibility is important. As he has shown, it is very likely that the path you follow, even in graduate school, is very different than where you will end up. If you work hard and believe you can do anything, you can! But be flexible and patient; you never know from where that passion may come.
- If there is one specific skill that is overlooked, it is care for the English language. Students must understand that technical writing skills are vital to their success at all levels. A scientist who cannot write has little value to a company because, as scientists, writing is essential to development and progress within a company and the worldwide scientific community.
Several examples from the life and career of Dr. Holmes should be taken to heart. Dr. Holmes spent much of his career on research and development of batteries for implantable devices such as pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators. Chemists save lives, and the contribution you can make should not be overlooked. Dr. Holmes was a theoretical chemist and a military scientist for a decade before he ever studied batteries.
Be open-minded about your career and do not think you have to continue down only one path. Dr. Holmes’ passion for music led him to find his wife and the company where he spent the majority of his career, showing that your passions are not mere hobbies but valuable resources themselves. Your path for the future is unpredictable so be prepared for change and embrace opportunities, even those from unexpected sources.