Meet Abby, Chemical Engineering student at Texas A&M University
How did you first become interested in Chemical Engineering?
During middle school, I was on the Science Olympiad team. One of my competition events was Water Quality, and one of the topics I had to study was water treatment. It was neat to learn about all the mechanical and chemical steps, like sand filtration and ozonation, that make our water safe to drink.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to see the process I had studied in-person with my dad, who is a Civil Engineer. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an engineer. Later in high school, I took AP Chemistry and loved it, so I decided to study to become a Chemical Engineer, specifically. Interestingly enough, I got to work on a water desalination project during my first two years of college!
What did you know about Chemical Engineering when you were a kid?
I’m from Houston, so sometimes my family would drive to the Galveston area to go to the beach. On the way there, I remember driving past huge chemical plants where chemical engineers worked, but I never knew I would work there myself one day!
What challenges have you encountered as a woman studying Chemical Engineering, and how have you overcome them?
I have encountered some challenges as a woman studying Chemical Engineering. I have received a few comments along the lines of, “You only got that opportunity because you’re a woman.”
When I hear these comments, I run through a list of what I have accomplished to remind myself I’ve worked for my place and that I do not need to justify it to anyone. I am also lucky to have great people in my life who support me and call out this type of behavior. In return, I try to do the same for others if they are being treated unfairly.
I will also add that the majority of people are welcoming, and my overall experience has been positive.
Tell us about a time you failed. How did you move on from that?
I have been working toward my Private Pilot License (PPL) for the last few years. To get this license, you need to have 40 hours of flight experience, pass a written exam, and pass an oral exam followed by a check ride (kind of like a driving test) where you show that you know how to do certain skills.
I first started flying in high school with my grandpa who is a flight instructor. This past June, my written exam expired, and my goal had been to pass my check ride before then. However, I failed to meet my goal because I had to prioritize my studies.
I’ve moved on from that failure first by forgiving myself, recognizing that while not what I originally planned, I can always retake my written exam. Secondly, I’ve set a new goal of finishing my training and passing my check ride before January 2022. I think it’s important to know that your priorities will change, and that’s okay. You can always revisit something later, and there’s no shame in trying again.
How may women and people from diverse backgrounds bring positive contributions to Chemical Engineering?
I think cultural diversity is a great thing to encourage and support in Chemical Engineering. Everyone has a unique perspective influenced by their culture, gender, socioeconomic background, and a number of other factors.
Specific to my field and the inclusion of women, supporting a variety of perspectives leads to social change and better product design. For example, some chemical engineers work in the pharmaceutical industry. In the past, male bias meant that women were not included in medical trials, and medications were eventually made available to the public without a complete understanding of how they affected over 50% of the population.
Now that women are becoming more and more represented in the industry, they are no longer being neglected in medical trials. We are also seeing a similar trend in other engineering and STEM areas where gender bias has been a big problem.
Can you describe a “day in your life” studying Chemical Engineering and share what you like most about your program at Texas A&M University?
As a student, my typical day involves attending about three lectures, working on projects and homework, then doing something fun before bed. Some projects that stick out to me are my involvement in water desalination research, designing a medical device for an entrepreneurship competition, and coding programs ranging from a battleship game to pipe specifications. In my internship experiences, I’ve worked on projects about turnaround (the couple of weeks when plants are shut down for maintenance and cleaning) planning and costs, raw material used to make polyethylene (a type of plastic) inventory, and dielectric spectroscopy. These projects are all very different which is exciting for me.
The best part about Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M is the Aggie Network. Texas A&M is well-known in the industry, so many companies recruit at A&M. Interestingly, when I was doing a summer internship at a Dow plant around Houston, I noticed the speed limit was 12 mph, which some Aggies I worked with said was a reference to the Aggie tradition of the “12th Man.” For those more interested in the academia / grad school route, we have some of the best professors in the world and plenty of research opportunities.
Meet Pilar, Chemical Engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines
What inspired you to pursue a career in Chemical Engineering?
Math and science have been my favorite subjects since I was in elementary school. My dad majored in Computer Science and my mom majored in Biology, so I knew I wanted to major in a STEM field since I was in middle school.
I didn’t choose Chemical Engineering until I was a sophomore in college. I ended up choosing it because I liked the different careers I could go into. There are chemical engineers in all sorts of fields ranging from biomedical devices to nanotechnology to energy to waste management.
What are some really cool research opportunities that you have had?
I work at the Kevin Cash research lab at Mines, where we focus on designing and developing nanosensors! Our goal is to develop chemical nanosensors that can be used to take measurements in complicated physiological systems. One graduate student builds biofilms, and then uses nanosensors to measure things like nitrogen levels. I’ve collaborated with the Prudhomme research lab at Princeton where they sent over nanosensors and I tested their ability to measure oxygen concentration. It’s really cool being part of such a unique blend of biology, chemistry and engineering.
Can you tell us about a time when you have failed and how you overcame it?
I didn’t pass one of my classes that I took in the spring. When I found out I didn’t pass, I was really sad because it made me doubt myself and question if I was smart enough to become an engineer. However, I ended up retaking the class this summer and got an A!
I was able to move on because I realized that failing one class didn’t cancel out any of my previous academic accomplishments and it didn’t make me less of an engineer. I just needed to take a step back, approach the class with a different mindset and put in more effort.
Can you share any exciting projects have you worked on?
The most exciting project I’ve been a part of was with my freshman year design group. We got to design a product based off of a prompt and our group was in complete control of the design.
My group chose to make a heated phone case to use outdoors in cold temperatures. It was super cool because at the end of the first week of class all we had was a rough sketch and an idea, and by the end of the semester we had created a working prototype.
Seeing our idea become a phone case we could use was very exciting!
Have you encountered any challenges as a woman studying Chemical Engineering? If so, how did you overcome them?
I tend to be very timid when I’m placed in a group project where I’m the only woman. I clam up and don’t offer suggestions because I’m afraid they won’t work. I worry that whatever bad idea I suggest would reinforce the stereotype that women shouldn’t be engineers.
A lot of these reservations are all in my head, and I’ve overcome this fear by leveling the playing field in my mind. I tell myself that everyone in my group is in the same class, we’ve all taken the same prerequisites, and we all have the same amount of background knowledge for the project.
There’s nothing that would make any of my suggestions less valid than someone else’s. Even if my suggestions aren’t perfect, it’s more helpful than not speaking up at all.
What do you love most about your school and its Chemical Engineering program?
I love my classmates and the friends I’ve made at Mines. Everyone is so supportive and willing to help. I never feel like I’m asking a dumb question or holding my study group back because I know everyone wants me to succeed.
Can you offer advice to our readers who may be interested in studying Chemical Engineering?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! A lot of Chemical Engineering topics aren’t intuitive, meaning they are hard to understand sometimes. Asking specific questions to professors or other students will help you understand what you’re learning better.
Allison Osmanson is a Materials Science and Engineering PhD student at the University of Texas at Arlington. She holds a Master’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of North Texas and she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering from Washington State University. She plans to graduate in December 2021, after which, she will be a Microelectronics Packaging Engineer at Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas.