Growing up in Philadelphia, Fran Adar liked to read and play the piano. But it wasn’t until high school chemistry, when she first saw the Periodic Table of Elements, that Adar found her true passion.
“I realized that there was order in the universe,” she said.
Adar is the Raman Principal Scientist for HORIBA Scientific in Piscataway, New Jersey, where she just celebrated 40 years at the company. Her job is to help customers solve problems in materials analysis for research and industry.
Adar was an anomaly when she began her career as a female scientist in a male-dominated academic world. Today, the power centers haven’t changed much, but the number of women in science has grown dramatically.
After graduating from the Philadelphia High School for Girls, Adar was awarded the Mayor's Scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“In high school, I had passed a half a year of Calculus and I thought that was interesting,” she said. “So when I started university, I didn't know if I wanted to do math or physics. But then I took a course in set theory and it was horrible. I decided I was going to opt out of math immediately. I didn't understand what they were talking about. It was all theoretical math for me. Math is interesting if it enables you to understand the physical world.”
Adar majored in physics as an undergraduate in the general honors program. After graduation, she attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. When she finished her graduate degree in physics, she joined the biophysics department and was there for five years.
Adar was hired on by a HORIBA Scientific predecessor company in 1978 as an application scientist. There were only 10 people in the company at the time, and being a female scientist wasn’t a big deal.
“Forty years ago it was irrelevant, because they needed to sell equipment, and they didn't care if I had purple hair, as long as I could help them sell equipment,” she said.
Adar would talk to customers, learn about their problems and try to understand their materials. This let her suggest ways that the equipment HORIBA offered could solve their problems. It’s essentially the same job she has today.
“I had studied solid state physics which was active at the time, but the solid state physicists didn't think they needed a microscope,” she said. “They were so arrogant that they didn’t need anything that anybody could offer them.”
Adar had been in biophysics and that was one of the reasons HORIBA hired her.
“They thought there was this enormous potential. And I said, I don't think so because these molecules are much too complicated and there's no way to de-convolute them with everything that's going on now,” she said.
“That meant that I needed to learn about all kinds of materials. And for me that's not an issue,” she said. “I can get an article or a book and plow through it to figure out what I need.”
Going back forty years, science was dominated by academics more than it is today, according to Adar.
“They liked to say they could build (the instruments) themselves, which usually meant that they've purchased components and put them together,” she said. “Software was essentially nonexistent, at least for Raman instruments. Bell Labs and IBM were enormous forces. They had enormous amounts of money and they were just going gang busters when developing a lot of the technology that we take for granted today.”
What has also changed is that Adar no longer has to convince people that Raman offers them useful information.
“They come to us assuming that, but they don't really know what it can do for them. And so, we often have to show them what it can do.”
Knowing the customer has been critical to Adar’s success.
“We have to keep in mind that they're not experts and that they need quick solutions. They don't have time to learn a lot and so we have to show them that the instrumentation is not too complicated, which is a challenge because our instrumentation is the most sophisticated in the market. But in order to be sophisticated, you have to provide all kinds of capabilities and in providing many capabilities the user needs to make choices. That means that they need to know enough to make those choices…and that is what makes them nervous. Ultimately, we need to present the equipment in such a way that they're comfortable with what they see,” she said.
Adar is a prolific writer, contributing a regular column for SpectroscopyOnline, a popular trade publication. She is considered an expert in the field of Raman instruments.
She has been essential to the growth of Raman technology and sales at HORIBA Scientific.
“I know how to ask the questions to find out what the real problems are, and I know how to figure out what materials are involved so I can put together a story and make it simple. By doing that, I am helping to solve their problems.”
One of the first instruments that the company sold was to IBM in Fishkill, New York. Adar was working with a senior scientist there.
“After the company sold them an instrument, I said to him, Jack, how much money are you saving when you solve a problem? So he smiled and said, well, it depends on what you ask. If my line is down and it's costing me $10,000 an hour, I don't have to solve a lot of problems to make your instrument pay for itself.”
What advice would Adar give a young person entering the industry?
“I guess my advice would be to listen to what the customer really needs, and not be arrogant, and to try to tell them what they need to do. Find out what they need and find out a way to show them that the equipment can give them what they need.”
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