Two engineering non-profits I spend a bit of time helping out with are the US-based National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) focused on advocacy for public safety and well being, and AIChE, the global technical home of chemical engineers
I served as as NSPE-California State President from July 2017 - June 2019. I’m a past Director on the NSPE National Board of Directors and previously served on the leadership teams of the Connecticut Society of Professional Engineers and as Past Chair of the Professional Engineers in Industry (PEI) interest group.
Just as one would expect a doctor or lawyer to also be licensed in their field of practice in their respective states, professional engineering licensure (or just “PE”) exists in all 50 states in the US to perform work that directly impacts public safety. Most common are PEs in civil and structural engineering that handle construction and public works projects, but PEs can be found across most any discipline.
I help out on the leadership team of the AIChE Management Division, whose programs promote professional leadership & executive development in chemical engineering. I’m the Past Chair for the AIChE Northern California Local Section and previously served as the Secretary for the global Local Sections Committee as Secretary, which fostering best practices between AIChE’s 7,500 local and regional section members.
// 57th Annual AIChE Northern California Symposium (April 2019)
As I end my term as Section Chair of the AIChE Northern California Section, my valedictory activity for the section was to organize the Section’s premiere tradition, its annual Symposium, which focuses on a given theme and brings chemical engineers and research scientists together for a full day of topics, workshops, and camaraderie.
// AIChE Spring Meeting in New Orleans (April 2019)
AIChE's industry-centric conference each year is its Spring Meeting, which took place this year in New Orleans. I was there to help out with the AIChE Management Division, which sponsors two days of talks in this spring conference. This season, the main topics were related to career development, continuous improvement and best practices in process safety.
// NSPE-California Strategic Planning in Venice Beach (March 2019)
As difficult as it is to help run a state society that spans the 800 mile north to south range of California, the times the leadership team does get to meet up face to face is always a delightful treat. Being a joint meeting of NSPE-California and our sister subsidiary that runs the state’s MATHCOUNTS competition for local high schools, we got to cover the pipeline of engineers into the profession, from aspiring student to practicing licensed professional.
As I had begun winding down my term as NSPE-California state president, this workshop became the perfect opportunity to do some succession planning and lay out the direction of the state over the next five years. And meeting in sunny Venice Beach certainly helped with the mood as well.
// AIChE Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh (November 2018)
Traveled to Pittsburgh in the fall as a speaker for the Management Division’s sessions on productivity and project management, where my talk introduced the concept of Scrum, common in the tech world and slowly gaining more traction in other industries such as chemical engineering.
// NSPE Annual Professional Engineers Conference (#PECON18) in Las Vegas (July 2018)
Heading into the second half of my term as NSPE California State President, I got the chance to onboard our amazing new Executive Director Jeanne Marie Tokunaga and our Vice-Chair, Mehdi Khalili, PE. Every year, NSPE holds its annual conference, PECON and there couldn’t have been a more exciting place to welcome in a new team than amidst the neon buzz of Las Vegas.
// RVA & Virgina Commonwealth Engineering (2017)
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 as a guest speaker about career development as chemical engineers.
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. And pretty awesome.
// 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.) Long story, but I couldn't have been more grateful.
// WE'LL TAKE A CHANCE ON YOU (EVEN THOUGH YOU MAKE US CRAZY)
I owe every instance of anything that could be perceived as success to the mentors throughout my early days as a chemical engineering major at Johns Hopkins. These were largely people who had no business taking a chance on me, but they did and I am truly lucky and grateful. That I have since become good friends with many of them only makes me luckier.
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 kick me to the curb 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."
// Pressure Vessel
Over a decade later, this time returning to Johns Hopkins as a speaker and not as a sleep deprived undergraduate, I got a tour of the undergraduate chemical engineering lab in Maryland Hall. To my surprise, this liquid level experiment was still going strong.
As my undergraduate days were winding down and I still had not a clue as to what I wanted to be when I grew up, my mentor Mike Betenbaugh took a chance on me and asked me to take over building out new experiments for the undergraduate lab. So a week or so after graduating, I officially took a job as an engineering aide to the Department of Chemical Engineering, was given a budget, two six inch thick catalogs filled with mysterious lab equipment, and a goal of creating a scaled down lab experiment where chemical engineering students could learn process controls, play with pressure sensors, hook up thermocouples.
My days and nights were long and I largely worked solo, although I had the helpful guidance of a visiting professor who would pop in for encouragement and help me bolt pieces of metal together. These were quiet afternoons with me sitting on the floor with snack-sized boxes of Swagelok surrounding me, shredded pieces of Teflon tape stuck to my clothes.
It eventually worked, we published an operations manual, and I even got my first acknowledgement in a chemical engineering paper.
So it was very much a close the loop experience to return to my school to talk to undergrads about chemical engineering careers and see this ghostly past version of myself still moving along as if I had sleeplessly never left.