When I was in high school, I became interested in chemical engineering because it was the engineering discipline that relied heavily on the combination of math and chemistry. I was very mathematically driven, but I knew I didn’t want to solely study it abstractly. I was very excited about the possibility of using math as a tool to transform chemicals because they fuel and impact our everyday lives – even if we are not conscious of it –from the biochemistry in our bodies, to food chemistry, the chemistry of batteries, and so much more. To be completely honest, when I enrolled in chemical engineering, I had never met a professional chemical engineer before, and I had no idea what kind of job I wanted after finishing the degree. I loved the fact that chemical engineering was broadly applicable to so many industries because I was interested in the food industry, cosmetics and personal care, the energy sector, coatings, sustainability, andenvironmental science to name a few. My approach was to keep an open mind and try to narrow down my interests as I worked on my undergrad degree. Turns out that along the way, I found research and I postponed narrowing down my industry interest because nanotechnology is relevant to all the sectors I mentioned above. Then, when I was looking for potential R&D jobs after completing my Ph.D., I realized I didn’t have to choose a specific chemical engineering industry because Dow interfaces with all of them through its products and customers.
What does a day in your current role look like? Do you get to do the hands on lab work?
My day usually involves a mix of project shaping/brainstorming, lab work, data analysis, and working on documentation or presentations. I have the freedom to structure my days and how much I focus on each of these aspects, which I like because I can set a structure that works for me and break up the routine when I need a change. Having different roles and tasks during the week energizes me and teaches me discipline for prioritizing strategically based on project needs and deadlines. Yes! I get to do different kinds of hands-on lab work, which is a lot of fun. It ranges from preparing samples for a measurement, developing a new way to prepare a sample for a measurement, run an established analysis method or develop a new one, customizing measurement features in an instrument, and troubleshooting instrument performance. I never get bored and there’s always an exciting challenge ahead!
What is a piece of advice you would give to a young girl who wants to pursue a career in STEM?
Don’t be afraid to break the mold and follow your curiosity! If you feel nervous because you want to try something and you don’t know anyone who has done it like you want to approach it or you are feeling discouraged because someone told you that your way is not how things are typically done, go for it anyways. Along the way, you will find mentors and peers that will support and inspire you. The STEM community needs your fresh, enthusiastic, and unique perspective!
Do you have any advice on how to find a research opportunity when in college?
There are a couple of different approaches. A traditional one is to reach out to a professor teaching a class that you enjoy. Nowadays, professors put a lot more effort into their websites and social media presence, so you can find engaging and useful information in these platforms. Taking advantage of these platforms might be an effective way to connect with a professor or graduate student you haven’t met in person before. You’d be surprised how many people will actually respond to a message that starts with something along the lines of “I saw your post about X or I read the thread you posted about your recent paper/talk/project and I really enjoyed it, could you tell me more about Y? Would you mind telling more about your journey/career path so far?” If I were to go through the process again, I’d find a graduate student who needs help and is passionate about mentoring undergrad students and create a connection with them first.Aligning your interests with a potential research project is important, but in my experience the fit with the graduate student mentor is overlooked. This person can advocate for you and help you navigate your entry into a professor’s group, your training, and getting started on your project more smoothly.
Is research at your company collaborative? Do you have opportunities to publish in journals?
Yes, research at Dow is very collaborative, especially in the Analytical Science organization. Our primary role is using measurement science and instrumentation to diagnose the root cause of a problem or develop a method to learn something new about a system. This involves pairing so many techniques and types of expertise ranging from different engineering disciplines, physics, analytical chemistry, and material science to name a few. In addition, we study many different types of samples, so we collaborate with researchers that develop new formulations, engineers that design the reactors, plant operators, statisticians, computational researchers, and so many other functions. We arrive at the most rewarding solutions and conclusions by considering all the different factors and perspectives. Dow is also a global company, which means that we not only get to work with people based in different North America site, but in different countries as well! Yes, we do have the opportunity to publish in journals. Dow encourages us to stay up to date with new findings in our field of expertise and share our own contributions to continue advancing the science.
Pursing a degree in STEM feels daunting at times, any advice on how to navigate the stress that comes with the coursework, research, etc?
We all experience and cope with stress differently, so there’s no true magic formula.First, I’d like to say that college is a time when we face so many new experiences and responsibilities for the first time and away from our families. It’s ok if it feels daunting and difficult to navigate. Yes, STEM degrees often involve packed schedules, demanding coursework, juggling simultaneous group projects, research commitments,and tight deadlines. There are techniques and tools to help you figure out a system that works for you. I remember that the women in engineering program at my undergrad institution hosted seminars on this topic. If you’re not finding these resources, ask a student org, career services, your advisor, or departmental staff. It could also be helpful to get feedback on your schedule and commitments from a trusted friend who knows you, a friend a year or two ahead of you, a grad student mentor, etc. Sometimes westruggle to realize that we’ve taken on too much and we need to cut back, don’t realize why we’ve pilled on too much, or have lost direction on what we should be prioritizing. Discussing these concerns with someone who has my best interest at heart is always so helpful and insightful for me. I still do this to this day!
What was the biggest difference between research in grad school and industry?
In grad school, you can spend more time going deeper into a project, performing experiments to explore many uncharted directions, and become a pioneer in your field. In industry, we have to be more strategic about what kind and how many experiments we are running and how we allocate and distribute resources among projects while ensuring the delivery of high quality and rigorous research. We receive and handle multiple requests of varying urgency and complexity and our challenge is to balanceprioritizing the research the company needs and satisfying our curiosity. In addition, part of the grad school training is learning to drive a project from a hypothesis to an answer or result independently. This doesn’t mean you have to do everything alone, but you are involved in and control most of the aspects of the project from synthesizing the materials, running all the different characterizations, analyzing the data, to testing devices, etc. However, in industry, a team of experts will be assembled to efficiently tackle the different needs (e.g. a synthesis expert, a performance testing expert, an expert for each characterization technique, etc). In some cases, you might not be involved in the project from start to finish because your expertise will be needed for a short-term consultation at a specific stage.
Ari, 26 asks- how long did it take before you felt comfortable when you first started working as a chemical engineer?
It’s difficult for me to come up with an exact number. For me personally, there is always a learning curve when I start a new role. Even when I reach a point of comfort in that role, I know I will have to face a new and challengingproject or situation and I will feel uncomfortable for a bit again. The short answer is that in my experience going through this kind of cycle leads to growth in my career. When I’m experiencing high levels of self-doubt and feeling overwhelmed, I will look back on the challenges I’ve overcome in the past or will look for signs of growth and progress during the short time I’ve been dealing with something new.