I was introduced to chemical engineering by my father. Early in high school, I discovered my passion for math and science, but I didn’t necessarily think about 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 hardest. My father recognized my passion and suggested that I major in chemical engineering. I didn’t know exactly what a chemical engineer did, but when it came to deciding what I wanted to study in college, I narrowed my possible majors down to either engineering or chemistry. I finally decided on chemical engineering after visiting various colleges and learning more about potential careers in chemical engineering. I learned that engineering gives you the background of problem solving and with that you can do almost anything. It was around the first year of high school.
I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University in 2016. While at Lehigh, I was part of both SWE and AIChE. In college, I had the opportunity to visit the Phillips 66 refinery in New Jersey and it was an eye-opening experience. Refining and petroleum engineering are very common backgrounds for chemical engineers. Many refinery engineers are chemical engineers, especially in Texas. I didn’t know 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 that was not what I wanted to do as soon as I entered the site. Honestly, experiences like these to visit different aspects of the industry really helped me narrow down the paths I wanted to take and the paths I really had no interest in pursuing.
I did an internship at Sanofi Pasteur the summer before my senior year and continued it throughout my senior year part-time. During my internship, I worked in the production of vaccines. I was part of the continuous improvement team for equipment engineering. I spent my internship making small improvements to plants. The improvements were rather small, like moving a sampling valve, but being in the factories gave me a better appreciation of the equipment itself and again the scale of the process against P&IDs and process diagrams. Contrary to what we learned in school, machines and equipment weren’t just black boxes that did exactly what you wanted them to do. Especially in the world of vaccines, whenever something didn’t meet specifications, there was a gap. The discrepancy had to be investigated and resolved and sometimes it could mean the loss of a lot. The experience opened my eyes to the gear side of engineering, not everything was a black box that converted what you put in it to exactly what you wanted it to be. Now, I deal with it on a daily basis in my work.
Currently I am a work manager in the application engineering group of SPX Flow. The Application Engineering team is responsible for preparing quotes and sizing mixers based on customer requirements. When a customer needs a mixer for their process, they contact our outside sales team. The request is then sent to my team to size the mixer and create the quote. I like to think of our mixers as very large Kitchenaid mixers. The customer needs the right speed and accessory to get the process result they need. For example, you would run your Kitchenaid at a different speed when trying to make whipped cream than when making dough. You would also use a whisk versus a dough hook. Industrial mixers are similar, we all have different speeds, torque ranges and impellers (accessories) to achieve the desired result. The application engineer is the one who 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. It’s one of the great things about my job, you always see something new. One day you may 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 you drink and use goes through a mixing process.
During a typical working day, I can interact with almost all parts of the mixing division. These may include outside sales, R&D, design engineering, sourcing, production, finance, product management, and project management. The role of AE is for me a unique experience. You may see a mixer come in as a request from outside sales, then you take all the information and create a mixer that meets the customers’ needs. Then, when it turns into an order, you can track it through to building, shipping, and reviewing the overall order’s finances. It gives you a view of every part of the business and connects every group to each other. All in all, it gives you a great appreciation for the whole business and the process from start to finish.
In your day-to-day life, you probably won’t notice a blender if you come across it. There are mixers on a vast majority of petroleum and oil storage tanks. These mixers look tiny compared to those massive tanks. On crude oil storage tanks, they keep sediment at the bottom of the tank. In petroleum storage, they can mix 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 as a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that when you start mixing it, it becomes easier to mix. It is similar in concept to mixing cornstarch and water. Special impellers have been developed for these applications to keep the chocolate moving and mixing. So the next time you’re eating chocolate, you might think of a blender.
To anyone interested in engineering, I want you to remember that there are endless possibilities and paths you can take with a chemical engineering degree. I have classmates who have gone on to become doctors, veterinarians, PhDs in research, salespeople, transitioned into the business world, and that doesn’t even include those who work as engineers in different industries. Chemical engineering gives you the basics of problem solving that sets you up for success, whatever path you choose. Although it may not be the easiest program and four years in school, I think it is the most rewarding. At my college, it was also one of the closest groups of students in a major. It was a unique experience to have a great group of friends who were there to support each other and learn together. Even if chemical engineering isn’t right for you, there are plenty of other engineering degrees that will provide you with the problem-solving foundation to set you up for success.