I was first introduced to chemical engineering by my dad. Early on in high school, I discovered my passion for math and science, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking how I could use that passion for a career. Calculus and chemistry were my favorite classes in high school even though sometimes they were the most challenging.
My dad recognized my passion and suggested I look into majoring in chemical engineering. I wasn’t exactly sure what a chemical engineer did but when it came time to decide what I wanted to study in college, I had narrowed down my possible majors to engineering or chemistry.
I finally decided on chemical engineering after touring various colleges and learning more about the potential careers in chemical engineering. I learned that engineering gives you the background of problem solving and with that you could do almost anything. This was around junior year of high school.
Chemical Engineer Education & Career Paths
I earned my Bachelor’s of Science in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University in 2016. While at Lehigh I was a part of both the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and AIChE. In college, I had the opportunity to tour the Phillips 66 refinery in New Jersey and it was an eye opening experience. Refining and petroleum engineering are very common paths for chemical engineers.
Many engineers at refineries are chemical engineers, especially down in Texas. I had no idea what to expect. We had seen process diagrams in class but seeing it in person and the size of the refinery was very different. I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do the second I stepped on site. Honestly, experiences such as these to tour the different aspects of the industry really helped me narrow down what paths I wanted to take and what paths I really did not have an interest in pursuing.
I interned for Sanofi Pasteur the summer before my senior year and continued it throughout my senior year part time. During my internship I worked in vaccine production. I was part of the continuous improvement team for equipment engineering. I spent my internship making small improvements to the plants.
The improvements were rather small, like relocating a sampling valve but being in the plants gave me a greater appreciation for the equipment itself and again the scale of the process compared to the P&IDs and process diagrams. Unlike what we had learned in school, the machines and equipment weren’t just black boxes that did exactly what you wanted them to do. There was a whole different side to sizing equipment and troubleshooting when things didn’t go properly.
Especially in the vaccine world, anytime something did not meet the specification, there was a deviation. The deviation had to be investigated and resolved and sometimes that could mean losing a batch. The experience opened my eyes to the equipment side of engineering, not everything was a black box that converted what you put in it into exactly what you wanted out of it. Now I deal with this on a daily basis at my job.
Currently, I am a working manager in the application engineering group of SPX Flow. The application engineering team is responsible for preparing quotations and sizing mixers based on the customers’ needs. When a customer needs a mixer for their process, they reach out to our outside sales team. The inquiry then gets sent into my team to size the mixer and create the quote. I like to think of our mixers as really large Kitchenaid mixers. The customer needs the right speed and attachment to get the process result they need.
For example, you would spin your Kitchenaid at a different speed when trying to make whipped cream than you would when making dough. You would also use a whisk compared to a dough hook. Industrial mixers are similar, we have all different speeds, torque ranges, and impellers (attachments) to get the desired result. The application engineer is the one that takes the tank information, fluid information, and desired result and designs the appropriate mixer.
Every application is different, and we support a wide variety of industries. That is one of the great things about my job: you always see something new. One day you can be working on a mixer for a water treatment plant, the next chocolate production, and the next catalyst production. There are mixers in almost every manufacturing process. Even the water that you drink and use goes through a mixing process.
A Typical Workday for a Chemical Engineer
In a typical workday I can interact with almost every part of the mixing division. That can be outside sales, R&D, design engineering, sourcing, production, finance, product management, and project management. The AE role in my eyes is a unique experience. You get to see a mixer come in as an inquiry from outside sales, you then take all the information and create a mixer that meets the customers’ needs.
Then when it turns into an order you can follow it through to being built, shipped and the financials of the overall order reviewed. It gives you a view of every part of the business and connects each group to each other. Overall, it gives you a great appreciation for the total business and process from start to finish.
In your everyday life, you probably wouldn’t notice a mixer if you passed it. There are mixers on a large majority of petroleum and oil storage tanks. These mixers look tiny compared to these massive tanks. On crude oil storage tanks, they keep the sediment off the bottom of the tank. In petroleum storage, they can blend different grades of gas together, helping to create that 91 or 93 gas.
Mixers are also used in many food and beverage processes, my favorite being chocolate production. Chocolate has a high viscosity and acts like a non-newtonian fluid, meaning as you start to mix it, it becomes easier to mix. It’s a similar concept to mixing cornstarch and water. Special impellers were developed for these applications to keep the chocolate moving and mixing. So next time you eat chocolate, you might think of a mixer.
To anyone interested in engineering, I want you to remember there are endless possibilities and paths you can take with a degree in chemical engineering. I have classmates that have gone on to be doctors, veterinarians, PhD’s in research, salespeople, moved into the business side, and that doesn’t even include those working as engineers in different industries. Chemical engineering gives you the problem-solving foundation that sets you up for success in whatever path you choose.
While it might not be the easiest curriculum and four years at school, I think it is the most rewarding. At my college it was also one of the closest groups of students in one major. It was a unique experience to have a large group of friends that were there to support each other and learn together. Even if chemical engineering isn’t the right fit for you, there are so many other engineering degrees that will provide the problem solving foundation to set you up for success.