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Chemical Engineers Thrive In Industries Outside The Obvious.
By Amanda N. Wegner
Naturally curious and not sure which engineering field is right for you? Chemical engineering might be the ticket. “A chemical engineer is considered to be a universal engineer,” says Kathryn Ta, a chemical engineer turned senior director of Applied Materials’s silicon systems group marketing. “You can do a lot of different things with it; there’s so much opportunity.”
Adds Eleanor Cwirko, group leader of acetylated wood process development at Eastman Chemical Corporation: “The biggest skill you have to have is an insatiable curiosity, why things work or how to make things better.” From the clean room to the casthouse to the boardroom, these four chemical engineers share what makes their field a great one and insight to achieve success.
Eastman Chemical Company—Developing Proprietary Technology
The day Eleanor Cwirko figured out how to model a chemical reaction and ultimately avoiding safety issues, she knew she was in the right field. “At that point, I felt like I knew what I was doing,” she recalls, so she enrolled in graduate-level tele-classes. She eventually earned her PhD in chemical engineering from North Carolina State University.
Cwirko is a 20-year veteran of Eastman, but she’s relatively new to her latest position; in fact, her position is new to the company. As group leader of acetylated wood process development, she heads up a group of chemical engineers and technologists who develop proprietary technology using acetic acid and acetic anhydride that makes wood more stabile, longer lasting, and decay-resistant.
Eastman manufactures chemicals, fibers, and plastics materials that its customers use as key ingredients to make everyday products for consumers. “Eastman has developed the technology for a while, but with this new position, I help to shepherd our group and provide process support through startup and development as we build our first commercial facility,” explains Cwirko. The new pilot demonstration plant will produce acetylated wood products for test markets beginning in 2012.
Cwirko notes that acetylated wood products, a growing market, are beneficial to builders and homeowners who love the feel and beauty of wood for their decks, doors, windows, and more, but need dimensional stability and longevity that real wood can’t offer. Additionally, there’s a sustainability aspect— Eastman’s acetylation technology can turn fast-growing wood like pine, a soft wood, into a hard, long-lasting wood product.
Of her work, Cwirko says there are certainly routine meetings and the daily challenges to balance her to-do list. “The biggest reward I get and the whole reason for working is that I get to work with a great bunch of people and solve significant problems together,” she declares.
Cwirko began her career at Eastman’s Tennessee Operations, then Tennessee Eastman, right out of North Carolina State, in the company’s engineering and construction division doing equipment and process design for new PET plants. She spent time in reactor design and small-volume, high-value organic chemicals before moving into acetic acid and anhydride acetyl process development in the mid-2000s.
What continues to impress Cwirko about Eastman is that it hires people with long-term career development in mind.
“Eastman hires people to develop them; Eastman does not hire people to weed them out. Sure, it doesn’t always work out, but the company wants you to develop and grow and stay with Eastman a long time.”
Aside from insatiable curiosity, one way to grow as an engineer, says Cwirko, is to develop leadership skills.
“You can’t get around basic technical competency, but my advice is to work on leadership skills. Engineers, especially, tend to be more individualistic, but you have to be able to work with other people and influence without authority. Find ways to develop that and you’ll be invaluable,” she enthuses.
She also encourages engineers to accumulate as many different experiences as possible. “Get involved in the community, in outreach, in other cultures, and take as many trips as you can. It goes back to that curiosity: Any experience outside the field can influence you in ways you don’t expect,” she concludes.
Alcoa—A Multinational Company
Corleen Chesonis makes a good point: “Don’t think that chemical engineers only work in the chemical industry.”
Working in metals processing, she knows this well.
Chesonis is a technical specialist at Alcoa’s Technical Center, the global research and development arm of the aluminum giant. Based in New Kensington, PA, Chesonis’s work focuses to remove impurities such as gases, liquids, and solids from molten aluminum alloys. “I have worked on projects that span the whole range from developing new technologies to troubleshooting existing processes,” says Chesonis. “Working with molten metal is not exactly normal chemical engineering, but the processes still involve multiphase flow, reaction kinetics, diffusion, and filtration.”
After completing her master’s degree in chemical engineering (she also has a PhD) from nearby Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, Chesonis sought an R&D position in the area. Originally from western Pennsylvania, Chesnois has found her home at Alcoa; she’s been there for 31 years.
“I realized I was ‘at home’ one night at 3 a.m. when I was walking through an Alcoa casthouse in one of our smelters, working as part of a team to take measurements around the clock to solve a plant problem,” recalls Chesonis. “It was quiet without the usual number of people around, but there was still the constant background hum of 24-hour-per-day production. I knew that I was there at that moment because I had the skills and experience that could help solve an important problem. It’s an environment that you either love or hate, and I realized that I had found the area where I belonged.”
In her three-plus decades with the company, Chesonis has worked in several different areas and traveled the world — opportunities this small-town girl appreciates. “Alcoa has given me opportunities I never would have dreamed of when I was studying to be a chemical engineer. I’ve worked in four very different technical areas within the company during my career, and I’ve enjoyed having the chance to try something new on a regular basis,” she reports.
While metals processing may not seem like a normal field for a chemical engineer, Alcoa employs many chemical engineers. “Chemical engineering can be applied to almost any industry where chemical reactions or fluid flow are involved. Be open to opportunities that could lead to learning a whole new field specific to your job after you finish your degree,” she advises.
A strong technical background is obviously necessary, but she stresses that people skills are essential, too. “You need to be able to communicate clearly so that others understand your work and can act on it. You also need to be able to work with people ranging from technicians and plant operators to managers. A project engineer has to interact with accountants, attorneys, and procurement personnel as well as other technical people. Few projects are done by a single person; they almost always involve working as part of a team,” she declares.
Applied Materials—A Leader In Its Field
Kathryn Ta has had quite the career. With degrees in chemical engineering, she went from working on semiconductors in a cleanroom at IBM to senior director of Applied Materials’s silicon systems group marketing, with stops in product management and investor relations in between.
A leader in its field, Applied Materials provides equipment, services and software to manufacture advanced semiconductor, flat-panel display, and solar photovoltaic products that help make smartphones, flat-screen TVs and solar panels and other technologies more affordable and accessible. “It was exhausting to be in a cleanroom all day; my pager was ringing at all hours—I wanted to get a more holistic view,” Ta says of her move into marketing. “In the end, it still draws upon basic engineering concepts and being able to communicate to broad, diverse audiences. There is science in the marketing, too.”
While in graduate school, Ta knew academia wasn’t for her; her work needed to have a practical outcome. That same belief guided her to marketing. “Academia seems so far removed; it didn’t want my work to be some dusty book on a bookshelf,” says Ta. “My move from the cleanroom to marketing was influenced in much the same way.”
What Ta likes about marketing, aside from the interaction, is influencing and changing people’s perceptions. “If you can move the needle on the perception of the company, that’s huge for stock valuation, for customers internal and external, that feeds into how successful the company is going to be,” she explains.
Choosing a career in chemical engineering is a smart move. “There’s this notion of a chemical engineer being a universal engineer. You can do a lot of different things, and the proof is found by looking at where chemical engineers work: pharmaceuticals, oil, food, and semiconductors. It’s the basis for doing a lot of different things.”
In addition to the talent employed at Applied Materials, what Ta likes about the company is that it’s a rare example of a place you can come and participate in cutting-edge technology. She notes, “Many companies just improve incrementally, but at Applied, we have to upend and completely refresh our portfolio every few years. It’s a very dynamic industry.”
Semiconductors, she points out, have evolved to the point where engineers no longer move microns, but atoms. “You get to have a ‘Gee whiz’ moment here everyday; that’s really cool,” exclaims Ta. “The geek in all of us is excited about what we’re able to do.”
While Ta believes that few chemical engineers jump as far from the lab as she did, moving upward into management is a common career step for experienced engineers. With that comes the need for strong communication and leadership skills.
“For the most part, I’m a bit of an anomaly but moving from being an individual contributor to management is a likely career path. There, you start to get the big picture, that holistic view. And it really comes together,” she comments.
The Lubrizol Corporation—
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Monica James is relatively new to the industry-working world, but she knows she’s in the right place. A colloid/rheology research engineer for The Lubrizol Corporation, a specialty chemicals company, James began at the company seven months ago after completing her postdoctoral work in chemical engineering. “All throughout my career, I’d felt like I was in transition, waiting to get to that place where I could use all the skills and experience being given to me,” states James. “When I came here, all the classes, research, long nights, presentations, made it all worth it. I realized this was the type of work I’d always dreamed of doing.”
James’s primary role is lab supervisor for colloid research; she provides customer support, troubleshooting for R&D, and more. “If someone has a problem, we have a wide array of different problem-solving techniques at hand. We work mainly for internal customers in Lubrizol, as a support lab for employees who develop formulations or need assistance to get their additives to work properly.”
While James used some of Lubrizol’s additives in her graduate research, being relatively new to the position, she learns to balance the demands of different customers while getting up to speed on the additives industry. “Things constantly change and expand, so staying up-to-date to provide the best support to my customers is a priority,” explains James. “It’s also the coolest thing. In chemical engineering, engineers are constantly called on to solve problems, and the reward is having a toolbox and using all my skills to bring innovative ideas to come up with good solutions. It’s a thrill that can’t be beat.”
Plus, Lubrizol produces additives for everything from oil to personal care products, so “it’s just interesting to come to work everyday,” adds James.
What James appreciates most about her employer is that Lubrizol’s mission isn’t just a static statement, it’s in action, everyday. “Here, I don’t get the sense that there are big I’s and little you’s. When the vice president of research stops to talk to me, he’s not looking down, but he’s really interested in what’s going on. That happens throughout the company.”
To be successful as a chemical engineer, you must be inquisitive; you can’t take everything at face value.
Outside-the-box thinking is particularly critical as science as a whole moves toward a multidisciplinary approach to combine the strengths of different fields. “One thing I increasingly see is the importance of multidisciplinary research. You need to know what’s going on in other disciplines, then be able to use your core concepts in nontraditional way,” she advises.
As such, she encourages young engineers to stay engaged; read relevant trade publications and take an interest in what’s going on in the world and other disciplines.
“It’s easy to get tunnel vision and be engrossed in your own research if you never look up and see what’s going on. That happens throughout the company,” she concludes.
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