After earning my B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University, I was ready to dive into industry.
My first taste of chemical engineering in the real world was as a Process Engineer for Procter & Gamble, where I worked in the Duracell batteries division. I worked on assembly lines that cranked out millions of cells that were themselves, tiny electrochemical systems.
Richmond, Virginia is home to Virginia Commonwealth University whose engineering department just celebrated is 20th year in 2016. Had the chance to visit the engineering school at VCU this February, meet up with my long time mentor Ram Gupta, and chat with engineering students about career development, chemical engineering and interviewing.
Even though it was over a decade and a half ago, when I was a newbie process engineering at a battery factory in west Georgia, I tried to keep my link to academia at the time by taking extension classes in chemical engineering at nearby Auburn University. I met Dr. Gupta there for the first time as his student, where we shared a common enthusiasm for a branch of chemical engineering called thermodynamics.
It's so amazing that all our small conversations and email exchanges over the years have been so influential to me, long after taking my core chemical engineering skills across to other industries. So to stand in his lab and chat with him and his grad students in downtown Richmond was celebratory and surreal.
WHAT POETS AND ENGINEERS HAVE IN COMMON
My career in chemical engineering started with poetry (or alternatively, you could say my pursuits in poetry started with chemical engineering.)
But I couldn't be more grateful.
BALTIMORE: MY FRENEMY
I love Baltimore. It's beautiful, thriving, reinventing itself, struggling, achieving.
This cycle is repeated a thousand times a day just a few miles north of the tourist filled Inner Harbor, on the Johns Hopkins campus.
Engineering didn't come as naturally for me as it did for my talented classmates. I had started my academic career as an English major so the transition from the liberal arts quad to the engineering quad was a bit of an adjustment (symbolically, those two parts of campus were physically separated by a sort of landscape plateau).
Psychologically, I left bruised but alive. Thirteen years later, I returned to campus as a guest speaker for one of my former professors and close mentors, Mike Betenbaugh.
It was surreal to be standing in the same lecture hall in Maryland Hall where over a decade ago, I had been bashing my brains out over linear algebra. And now there I was presenting as if I actually knew something about engineering in the real world.
Afterwards, I took Dr. Betenbaugh out to dinner at The Helmand, an Afghani restaurant that I could never dreamed of stepping into as a lowly, ramen-fed undergrad.
We reflected on academia and professional life. He said I had really come a long way and was so proud of my successes.
Coming from him, those words meant the world to me and I carry them close every day.
WE'LL TAKE A CHANCE ON YOU (EVEN THOUGH YOU MAKE US CRAZY)
No engineer can aspire to a successful career without patient, empathetic mentors there to get your back. My freshman year advisor Dr. John Van Zanten welcomed me to the chemical engineering department with open arms when I transferred there from the Johns Hopkins Department of English. He continued to stick with me through the moment I crossed the stage for a diploma even though he had every reason to curb-kick me early on.
As my career progressed, I kept in touch with some of my key mentors in chemical engineering: coaches, sanity checkers, and (some would argue) charity workers, all who encouraged me to stay the path:
- Dr. Michael Paulaitis taught me about the intersection of biochemistry, proteomics and physical chemistry and ignited my fascination with thermodynamics.
- Dr. Mark McHugh extended my passion for thermodynamics further by teaching me the wild world of phase equilibria. It was also in his class that I learned how to really study chemical engineering.
- Dr. Mike Betenbaugh kept me on the straight and narrow, kicked my butt at regular intervals to keep me focused and ultimately hired me for my first job out of college to partner with a local firm in the design of the Department's new undergraduate chemical engineering lab (I still get teary-eyed whenever I see a box of Swagelok sitting around).
- Dr. Ram Gupta helped me glimpse what chemical engineering research could have been like, let me hang out in his lab at Auburn and pontificate equations of state, and encouraged me that "the best discoveries lie at the interface of different disciplines."