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#83 Matt Hotze Story

Dr. Matt Hotze holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering and is currently the Administrative Director at Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Engineering Research Center. In today's episode, heshares his experience about the challenges faced by PhD Students.

Published onSep 13, 2019
#83 Matt Hotze Story

Matt Hotze graduated with a doctorate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University in 2008 and is currently the Administrative Director at Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Engineering Research Center.

From his story, you will learn how almost failing the GRE exam brought him to the managing position he has now and how to apply business principles in academia and life. 

Matt also shares his experience with the dual-career challenge that many PhD couples face after their graduation and offers good advice on how to find a job and keep a relationship at the same time. 

By understanding people and how you interact with them you can improve your results, your research results.

Matt Hotze, PhD in Environmental Engineering


Welcome to PhD Career Stories, the podcast about career paths inside and outside academia. I am Paulius Mikulskis and it is my pleasure to introduce Matt Hotze. 

Matt Hotze graduated with a doctorate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University in 2008 and he is currently Administrative Director at NEWT Engineering Research Center. He also is Co-Founder of Team Helium. The  project which aims to help early career researchers to land, master and lead in faculty positions. 

I hope you will enjoy this episode of PhD Career Stories!

Here’s a story I’ve never told before. In the US there’s an exam called the Graduate Record Exam, or the GRE, or at least in 2002 when I was finishing up my chemistry degree that was the main tests that you needed to take to get into graduate school.

I bombed the GRE. There were three parts of the exam and I got a score of 423/800 essentially on the vocabulary part of the exam. When I came home and cried to my girlfriend at the time that I had no future and the one thing that I kind of wanted to do with my future was not gonna work out. My path was not a very clear one and I never knew that I wanted to be a scientist or engineer for my whole career.

I was interested in all kinds of things but I knew that I was interested in the natural environment for sure. So fortunately there was a professional master’s program at Rice University that was just getting started up. It was a program in what was called Environmental Analysis. And I got into that program, probably because they were just starting up. My GRE score, like I said, was pretty terrible and I was really fortunate actually. I worked hard in that program and ended up in the first year in a class on environmental transport processes with who would be my adviser – professor by the name of Mark Wiesner – who recruited me out of that class to become a PhD student in his group.

The reason for this is from what I understand is that he saw how hard I was working in that class and he saw that I had experience in chemistry. At the time he had received some money to work in the area of nanotechnology and water; and understanding the environmental implications of using nanotechnology in the long run. Specifically, he was working with a molecule called fullerene, which was discovered by a team partially led by Rice University, where this program was. And he needed someone with more of a chemistry background to run experiments related to water and nanotechnology. So that’s how I got into my PhD program.

I started the story out with the idea that I was doubtful of my path and doubtful of myself. Those feelings really have never gone away. Even during my PhD, after I received my PhD, and even today, I’m always self reflective and thinking about – “Okay am I doing the right thing with my career? Do I feel like I’m being authentic to myself? Those feelings have never gone away for me. Even after getting the PhD!

To continue the story of my PhD, I worked in the area of fullerene and water. So I really wanted to understand the photosensitization of fullerenes in the water matrix because it makes what’s known as reactive oxygen species. So the thought at the time was that maybe these reactive oxygen species would cause an environmental problem, when they were released into the environment because if you were going to make a ton of these fullerenes and they were all spitting out this reactive oxygen then it could damage the environment.

My job as a PhD was to really understand what was going on once these materials were released into the water and then they started interacting with light. So I made a model to try to understand the aggregation behavior of these materials and how that affected their photosensitivity. It turns out that, as a lot of times with nanomaterials, this isn’t always true, but they really do aggregate quite well with each other and they aggregate with particles already out in the environment. And when that occurs the amount of risk that you have from those materials actually goes down significantly. That’s one of the things that we learned from the funding and from my PhD, as specifically related to fullerenes and fullerols, which are basically fullerenes. 

I didn’t explain but those are 60 carbon molecules in a cage – it looks a lot like a soccer ball or a football if you’re outside of the U. S. and then also I studied a molecule called fullerols which is basically that same carbon cage with some OH groups oxygen, hydrogen, hydroxyl groups on the surface of that carbon cage and those molecules are actually a little bit more stable in water. So understanding both of those types of molecules and how they produce reactive oxygen species out in the environment, I published several papers in this area and got some interest in; therefore I was able to land some postdocs or one postdoc and I’ll go on to another after I graduated.

I worked in a lab CNRS in France, I had the privilege of working in France for one year as a postdoc as soon as I graduated from Duke University. So actually I had moved from Rice to Duke at some point during my PhD program, which is a whole other story. I was in France for a year and I actually met my wife there but that’s another story and then I moved to Carnegie Mellon University so I started working for Greg Lowry at Carnegie Mellon, who is an excellent postdoc adviser doing again some work on nanomaterials in the environment. The focus there was on how certain natural organic materials out in the environment interact with nanomaterials and how that will eventually determine their transport in the environment.

So understanding the natural interaction of organic materials with the surface of nanomaterials and where then the nanomaterials will end up: where do they end up in your body, do they end up somewhere else deposited. And really one of the conclusions from that work is that there is a very strong interaction between organic materials in the environment and nanomaterials and it has an important effect on the transport and fate of nanomaterials.

So after my postdoc at Carnegie Mellon, my wife comes into play. So I met my wife in France, we were both PhDs. I convinced her to move from France – from Provence France – to Pittsburgh, which was a miracle in itself and she had a postdoc at Pittsburgh and she was working in the area of fracking and understanding the environmental impacts of fracking on the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania countryside. So people might not know this but Pennsylvania was one of the first places they found hydrocarbons in the ground. That was a big area for oil and other things like that. And so it is also now a big area for fracking and part of that fracking process means you’re putting a lot of fresh water into the ground and when the water comes back up it’s actually extremely salty and has a lot of different components in it.

She was trying to understand those processes and how those would eventually affect the countryside of Pennsylvania. And so we both were looking for jobs that were relevant to PhDs – so we had a two body problem. We made a decision in a relationship that whoever found a job that was going to make them happy first the other person would go along with that person wherever that happens to be as long as they could find something that was reasonable for a PhD, an employment that was reasonable for a PhD in that area.

So if my wife found a job in South Dakota that might disqualify that job even if she was going to love that job because the chances of me getting a job there, unless the same university wanted to employ me, was quite low. Same thing for me if I found a job in a metropolitan area with lots of different options for PhDs my wife would follow me there.

It turns out that my wife actually got a job first that she really enjoyed out near Washington DC and working on some of the same things that she was working on as a postdoc. So I had to find a job in the Washington DC area. I actually was really lucky that I found a job with the American Chemical Society publishing group. 

I was looking sort of in the typical places online for PhD listings in like PhD job listings but one day on a lark I said well I’ll look in The Washington Post, why not! You know who knows what’ll be in here. Well, it turns out that my job as a managing editor with the Environmental Science and Technology was posted in The Washington Post and it had not been posted anywhere else that I had seen. So I had published in the journal a couple of times during my PhD so that’s when I decided: Hey why not apply for this job, see what it’s like and turns out I got the job!

We moved to Washington DC with fortunately both of us having a job and my job again was the managing editor of Environmental Science and Technology and also the managing editor of another journal called The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. During my time at the journals, I was very fortunate the people there are amazing – very very nice people – that work at the American Chemical Society, especially in the publishing group – great folks to work with! 

It was like a mix of all different types of PhDs, who had been working in different areas like physical chemistry and analytical chemistry and we just got to hang out every day and work on improving our journals. It was a great job, very serious area though. Working in DC was kind of fun but also people take themselves very very seriously there. So there’s this little side note about DC.

After that my wife actually was transferred to Louisiana and I was able to keep my job as a managing editor. But it was a quite a bit of travel because I was traveling not only to conferences for the managing editor job but I was also traveling back to DC to just to fulfill my duties as a managing editor.

During that time I was starting to think about how I could get a job that was a little bit less intense on the travel side of things. And then it turns out my wife was transferred to Houston. where I currently live. And at that time an old adviser of mine, or actually an old masters committee member of mine, who I work for now at Rice, had just gotten a ten year engineering research center grants and he wanted me to come back and be the managing director for that center. 

So currently I work as the managing director for NEWT – Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Engineering Research Center that is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. And in that job, and I’ve been doing that job for the past four years approximately, it’ll be four years in September, and as part of that job I make this center run in terms of the day to day operations.

So it’s very similar to my job as a managing editor, which I didn’t really get into, but it’s kind of translating the science into the business side of just making the operations run. So as a managing director you’re really looking at the finances but you’re also working with the leadership team on making strategic decisions for how to best use the resources that are given to the center both by the National Science Foundation and by our industry members.So we also have an industry member component of NEWT. 

Now I’ve actually started a part time job on the side working as a consultant and coach in academia. So I mentioned earlier that I was recruited out of my masters program into a PhD program.It turns out that my co founder in this consulting and coaching business, which we call Team Helium we also have a podcast called Helium Podcast, is Christine Ogilvie Hendren and she was actually recruited on the same day at the same time by our same adviser to be a PhD student. I still remember standing in that office with her and looking at her and saying is he offering us this chance to be a PhD student – is he serious about this?

We have a long history together, including that day, which was a very important day in my life. So we’ve actually, because she works with another large research center at Duke, we decided to put our heads together and help other people that are starting research efforts for large teams because we have a lot of experience in this area over twenty years now together just knowing what it takes to start these types of groups up and what are the types of activities that we can do to really set the course correctly. 

Because the beginning few months are so critical for research teams and it’s really hard to course correct after that. The research shows that it’s difficult to adjust after you’ve kind of set in your lane as a research team. We really focus on trying to improve those first few weeks and months as a research team to really set you off on the right direction so you get the best possible results from your research center or your research group or your research team.

That’s a lot of the reasons why we started the podcast. So we started the Helium Podcast because we believe that there are a lot of lessons out there in the business world and the small business world. There’s a lot of overlap between what goes on as a young early career faculty member or someone who’s just getting to that point where they’re starting to lead larger teams and the overlap between that and running a small business, right, because you’ve got to manage a decently big team and you’ve got to understand principles that maybe weren’t taught to you in graduate school because you’re an expert in your area. That’s a great thing but there’s all kinds of other little things that can hamstring your progress if you don’t completely understand them.

So next time you walk into a room, I want you to try an experiment and do this with a family member or a friend, someone you trust is not going to get mad at you later. This is a social experiment. Walk into the room and act like you’re really angry with them and start blaming them for something, like they did something to hurt you or something that got you really upset. What do you think they’re going to respond to you with? Are they going to respond to you with happiness and joy, gratefulness? No, they’re going to respond to you with anger.

If you prefer you can walk into the room with something softer, you could praise them, or you could tell them about something that they did for you in the past that you really really appreciate. What do you think they’re going to respond to you with when you do that? Actually they’re gonna respond to you with positivity, right? There’s no reason to expect something different! It’s sort of an obvious thing but this is something called the mirror effect. And it’s where the emotions and the things that you put out into the world are actually gonna be mirrored back to you. This is a demonstration of the mirror effect. Of course after you do this to your friend or family member you should tell them what you did and why you did it and hopefully make amends for acting angry. 

In his books Robert Green talks about this quite a bit. A couple of books that he’s written are the Laws of Human Nature and The Forty Eight Laws of Power but you’ll actually see this mention in many different types of books. As I’ve read over the years this has popped up continuously. So I believe that this is really important for people that are, well people in general, but also people that are doing a PhD or are PhDs to learn. I’ve also learned this from being a parent because children don’t filter their mirror effect. You can see their raw emotional response right away. So if you’re nervous, they’re going to give you nervousness right back or if you’re angry they’re gonna give you anger right back most of the time. Because they are queuing off of you and they’re just little mini adults.

Adults do the same thing, they just hide it a little bit better. And the important thing to note here is that the world gives you back what you put out into the world. So if you are going to walk into a tense situation, maybe a negotiation, maybe a thesis defense, and you’re anxious, the people are going to pick up on that and they’re going to give you kind of anxious feelings right back to you. So understanding and knowing this mirror effect will give you more power in your interactions with people.

Another way that the mirror effect can give you more power in your interactions with people is that it will actually allow you to connect better with someone. If it’s maybe your future boss or your adviser or someone that you just want to get to know better you can actually use the mirror effect to your advantage. And this is not necessarily with emotions but with words. So if someone uses particular words when they’re speaking to you, you can try another experiment, which is repeating those words or slight variation of those words back to them before adding your own thoughts. I mean it sounds kind of crazy and it sounds like someone’s going to pick up on the fact that you’re doing this. Of course you can’t over do it but by just repeating the words that they use back to you before you give your own thoughts on and answer to them. You’re actually going to endear yourself to them by using this mirror effect. Because what it does is it signals to them that you’re listening and it also signals to them that it’s a safe place to talk to you. And it sounds interesting but I would give it a try – use that mirror effect in terms of words to try to connect better with people out in the world that you want to be closer with or someone that you just really need to make a good professional connection with.

In closing, in research in 2019 and beyond this is more often than not going to be done with other people. And so by understanding people and how you interact with them you can improve your results, your research results. You really need to know people in order to do good research at least that’s my feeling. So remember the mirror effect every time you look into a mirror it will help you navigate difficult situations and connect more closely with those people that you need to work with both in your life and in your professional life.

Thanks for listening to my story. If you want to hear more from Christine and I you can come over and take a listen to Helium Podcast. You can find us at 

And that is it for another episode of PhD Career Stories.  As always, we would love to hear from you. You can find us on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. As well as on our webpage If you like what we do, please subscribe to our show on iTunes or Spotify. Goodbye for now and we will be back with a new story in two weeks time.

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