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York College Alumnae Excel in Varied Chemistry Fields

Chemistry beakers on a lab table.

From tribology to forensic chemistry to biotechnology, women graduates of York College of Pennsylvania are using their Chemistry degrees in a variety of industries and making a lasting impact in the STEM fields.

For decades, York College of Pennsylvania has paved the way for women to make their marks in science, technology, engineering, math, and especially chemistry. Alumnae Lisa Williams ’08, Erin Slosser ’05, and Michelle Helferstay ’18 have mapped their own routes in the field of chemistry, breaking barriers and reshaping perceptions along the way.

Pioneering digital innovation in chemistry

Williams, who majored in Chemistry, works at the intersection of chemistry and digital technology. As the digital product manager for TruVu360 at Ametek Spectro Scientific, Williams’ career has been marked by innovation and grit.

Chemistry wasn’t Williams’ first career interest. Initially, she was drawn to the world of sports journalism and envisioned herself working for ESPN, reporting from the sidelines. A high school chemistry teacher sparked her interest in the sciences. Despite the academic challenges she faced, Williams kept pushing forward.

“I worked hard because chemistry did not come easy for me,” she says. “It came to fruition in college and things started clicking for me in the math and science realm.”

At York College, Williams found a nurturing environment conducive to growth and learning. She started her degree at a large university but soon decided that was not the place for her. She found at York College the intimate experience she was seeking in higher education.

“York College just had this really awesome family atmosphere,” says Williams. “They wanted me to succeed.”

Hands-on experiences

At York College, Williams immersed herself in hands-on experiences and laboratory work, a hallmark of the College’s approach to education. Under the mentorship of Dr. Kathleen Halligan and Dr. Gregory Foy, Associate Professors of Chemistry, Williams not only honed her technical skills but cultivated a passion for problem-solving and innovation. One of the factors that set her York College experience apart from that of her previous school was that the College encouraged undergraduate students to use the equipment in the laboratory. Many schools make these tools available only to graduate students.

“This is a huge advantage to getting ahead of other kids,” Williams says. “You go out into the workforce and talk to other kids with chemistry degrees, and they’ve never touched these instruments in their lives. We had a whole room of instrumentation that we got to play with and learn.”

The College’s focus on internships also helped Williams get a head start in her career. In 2007, Dr. Foy helped her connect with MRG Labs founder Rich Wurzbach and she began an internship that summer, working in the field of tribology, focusing on friction and lubrication in industrial machinery. The opportunity would lead to a full-time position in which Williams would thrive for 11 years before transitioning to her current job. During that time, she earned an MBA from Elizabethtown College, became certified in numerous specialties in her field, and served as an adjunct faculty member and chemistry lab instructor at York College.

As a woman in the field of chemistry, Williams often has been in the minority, whether at a conference or in the lab. While this initially was challenging, the experience has helped her to grow.

“I think you need to find a way to get comfortable just fighting through that. I am in the minority, but I have something to say and it’s good,” she says.

Prepared for diverse career opportunities

With a career spanning various industries and job titles, Erin Slosser, currently a Senior Director of Pharmaceutical Quality at Context Therapeutics Inc., is on a journey marked by adaptability and focus. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry with a minor in Philosophy from York College before earning her Master of Professional Studies in Biotechnology degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Slosser’s choice to study chemistry was fueled by a fascination with forensic science TV shows she watched as a teenager. After delving into her major, she realized her true interest was chemistry, not forensics. Drawn to York College by its intimate class sizes and active chemistry community, Slosser found a nurturing environment that fostered academic growth and personal development.

The small classes and the impressive laboratory equipment at York College left a lasting impression on Slosser. Like Williams, she appreciated that undergraduate students had access to laboratory instruments that often are reserved for graduate students at universities.

During her first year, Slosser benefitted from the newly formed Chemistry Industry Advisory Council (CIAC). The CIAC helped connect her to internships at Adhesives Research in Glen Rock, at Advancis Pharmaceuticals, and at Harley-Davidson. Through these hands-on opportunities, Slosser experienced chemistry at work in three very different industries.

“Chemistry is in everything,” she says.

Armed with a solid foundation in chemistry from York College, Slosser embarked on a career that focused heavily on that subject. From product development at Becton Dickinson to quality assurance in the pharmaceutical industry, Slosser’s Chemistry degree opened doors to jobs that spanned the spectrum of that field of science.

After several years as a bench chemist, she transitioned to her current position in quality control at a small pharmaceutical startup.

“The exposure of lots of different things definitely helped prepare me for what I’m currently doing,” she says.

Throughout her career, Slosser has been a vocal advocate for diversity and mentorship, particularly for women in STEM. Despite encountering gender-related challenges, Slosser remains steadfast in her commitment to empowering future generations of female chemists. “Their success is all of our success,” she says.

“We are in this industry together. Helping other women is the best approach.”

Expanding boundaries in forensic chemistry

While looking for a school where she could study Forensic Chemistry while playing Division III soccer, Michelle Helferstay discovered York College. There she found a supportive community that nurtured her academic and professional growth while providing hands-on access to an impressive laboratory. She majored in Forensic Chemistry and minored in Math and Criminal Justice.

“The exposure of lots of different things definitely helped prepare me for what I’m currently doing,” says Helferstay.

From her first year, she volunteered as a research assistant for Dr. James Foresman, Professor of Chemistry. The hands-on experiences helped her gain confidence in the laboratory and a deeper sense of the work required in research projects. She later worked as a lab assistant for Dr. William Steel, Associate Professor of Chemistry.

Armed with those lab experiences and skills, Helferstay began an internship at a crime laboratory.

“I got to sit in on high-level court cases and see a case develop from crime-scene collection to court,” she says. “It was an experience that solidified my passion and interest in the forensic chemistry world.”

Helferstay was chosen as one of eight students to represent the United States at the 23rd Conference of the Parties, or COP23, in Bonn, Germany, in 2017. She attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference with Dr. Foy and was asked to write a chapter for his book, “Climate Change Literacy and Education,” published in 2018. 

‘Believe in yourself and take every opportunity’

“I believe all my professors at York College played a key role in my career success,” says Helferstay. “Their belief in me from day one allowed me to have the confidence to pursue all opportunities.”

After earning her degree, Helferstay worked in a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals and cosmetics before moving to her current position as a narcotics chemist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Throughout her career, Helferstay has advocated for diversity and mentorship, particularly for women in STEM. By leveraging her experiences and networks, she helps aspiring female chemists embrace opportunities, challenge stereotypes, pursue their passions, and always stay positive.

“Believe in yourself and take every opportunity to further yourself,” says Helferstay.

The York College Chemistry program experiences of Williams, Slosser, and Helferstay led them along different paths, but each entered her career feeling prepared and ready to grow.

“The practical, hands-on experience and laboratory work at York College began my freshman year and continued until graduation,” says Helferstay. “It instilled a sense of confidence and curiosity. The instrumentation was no longer an idea but rather a real-life technique that I could fully touch and understand. This allowed me to enter the workforce not needing introduction.”