Local High School Teacher Inspired Ringering's Chemistry Career
Ever since he was inspired by a teacher at his Roxana, Ill., High School, SIUE alumnus Bob Ringering (B.A. ’83, Chemistry) knew he wanted to be a chemist.
Today, Ringering serves as production director for St. Louis-based Sigma-Aldrich, a leading life science and high technology company that operates in 35 countries with more than 6,800 employees worldwide. The company’s biochemical and organic chemical products and kits are used in scientific and genomic research, biotechnology, pharmaceutical development, the diagnosis of disease and as key components in pharmaceutical and other high technology manufacturing.
Ringering is responsible for overseeing operations of a production site that employs 128 people, manufactures about 2,500 different products and will generate sales of $100 million this year. Customers of the company’s products include life science companies, university and government institutions, hospitals and industry. In total, more than one million scientists depend on Sigma-Aldrich for their research supplies.
A typical day for a chemist in production would start by reviewing past runs of the product he or she is about to work on. Depending on the batch size, the chemist may work alone or with a team of chemists or processors. The chemist would gather the equipment and raw materials and start a reaction by mixing chemicals together. He or she would then monitor the process by doing tests to see if the reaction was complete.
Once the reaction was complete, the chemist would purify the product by a number of techniques including chromatography or crystallization. He or she would then analyze the final product before sending it to the company’s quality control group.
“It is similar to cooking, but a lot harder,” Ringering said. “An analogy would be trying to duplicate grandma’s famous chili."
“First you gather all the ingredients and utensils. Second, mix everything together and cook. As you are cooking you do your own testing by tasting the chili and maybe adding something to it (we don’t do this with chemicals). Finally you are ready to ‘release your product’ to the family.”
Ringering joined Sigma-Aldrich in 1984 as a bench chemist and has since worked his way up through levels including senior chemist, supervisor and manager, to his current position. Drawing from his years of experience with the company, he highlighted two things in particular that surprised him about the reality of working in the chemistry field.
The first is the extreme emphasis on safety. Chemists must adhere to an abundance of engineering controls and protective equipment used to protect themselves from chemical hazards. “Sigma-Aldrich is world class in safety,” Ringering said. “Our injury rate is at the top of our industry.”
Second, Ringering was surprised by the sheer amount of research and new product discovery coming out of the field. “As I said earlier, many of our products are used in the pharmaceutical industry and the diagnosis of disease,” Ringering said. “I think it is pretty neat knowing that the products we manufacture are used to improve the quality of life for mankind.”
Over the years, Ringering has observed an increase in quality within the chemistry field as instrumentation has become more sophisticated at picking up impurities in products that were not detected years ago. “Making a high quality product is not enough anymore,” he said. “You have to have good documentation, cleaning verification and raw material traceability. If these are not in place, many of our customers will not buy our products.”
Sigma-Aldrich’s dedication to quality, according to Ringering, is evidenced by the ISO 9001:2000 certification the company earned in 2006 for its Dekalb Facility in St. Louis. A globally recognized quality management system standard developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the certification applies to organizations that design, develop, manufacture, install and service products. To achieve certification, companies must have a comprehensive quality management system that addresses all areas of its operation.
“Our team worked hard for two years making the quality improvements needed to meet this standard,” Ringering said. “It was amazing watching the teamwork across production, packaging, analytical services and quality assurance to implement what was needed. Meeting this standard tells our customer that we are serious about quality.”
One of the main challenges he faces at work involves identifying, training, mentoring and retaining top talent.
“It is difficult to find the right people to fill our positions, and without great talent, we would not be an industry leader,” Ringering said. "It is a challenge to find universities in which the science faculty and the career service office communicate effectively," he explained. As a result, Sigma-Aldrich initiated its own college recruiting program in its production area in 2001.
"Since the company became involved in its own recruiting, its retention rate has reached an outstanding 75 percent," commented Ringering. Graduates of SIUE in particular have performed very well at the company over the years. Currently, Sigma-Aldrich employs 131 SIUE graduates at the St. Louis operation, which is the largest number of graduates of any other university.
Sigma-Aldrich has maintained additional ties to the SIUE chemistry department by supporting the Probst Lecture series since 2004 with an annual gift of $5,000. Ringering’s predecessor as production director at Sigma-Aldrich, SIUE alumnus Ron Tellor (B.A. ’70; M.S. ’71, Chemistry), was instrumental in initiating support for the lecture series.
“Ron had a distinguished career at Sigma-Aldrich and played a key part in the rapid growth of the company,” Ringering said. “On a personal note, Ron was a great leader and mentor.”
The company also stays connected to the University through its Sigma-Aldrich Internship Award Program, which was established in 2005 to provide a six-month internship and a $5,000 stipend to one outstanding SIUE chemistry student per year.
Ringering said that hearing students talk proudly about their research is one of the most satisfying aspects of his job. “I still get excited when I see a student excited about science,” he said.