Last summer, I spent eight weeks in sunny, humid Tuscaloosa, Alabama doing research at the University of Alabama. It was amazing opportunity because I learned a lot about metabolic engineering and microbiology while creating a potential renewable biofuel. The idea was thus: have bacteria generate butanol so that it could be harvested and used as a high energy fuel. However, this was much easier said than done.

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In order to scale up my bacteria research at Alabama, bioreactors larger than would be needed.

After two months of research, I had to ask myself: When will this happen? Will bacteria be the new biofuel creators? Could my research be scaled up industrially? I didn’t feel like my work was making an impact. My research had the potential to save the world, or at least our ozone layer, but there were so many problems with it that needed to be fixed. The bacteria only grew when fed glucose, an expensive form of sugar. It also didn’t produce much butanol because it was acidic so instead it made butyric acid, which couldn’t be used to power vehicles.

For summer 2013, I wanted an internship because I wanted to have a job where I made a difference everyday.

I wasn’t looking for a job with oil. In fact, LyondellBasell was the only petrochemical company internship I applied for because I was extremely familiar with the company. I knew if I worked for them, I would have a great job with meaningful projects while working with nice, enthusiastic people. I was right. Everyday when I go to work, I have to opportunity to directly optimize refinery production. One of my long term projects will change longstanding operational orders. Another project will be used by engineers for years to come to monitor their equipment.

When I end my internship next week, I will look back at my accomplishments and say with pride, “I did that.”

I’m sad to think that most of my chemical engineering professors have only research experience and no industrial experience. Now, I have seen both sides of the coin. There are similarities: both are independent, time-needing and specific projects. However, research is on micro scale, while industry is on a macro-level. In research, I dealt with bacteria and editing DNA. In industry, I climb through 40-foot distillation towers and contactors. In research, I examined test results from extremely accurate, very expensive analytical instruments. In industry, I monitor process variables off of controllers which are not always accurate. One flow meter actually reads in the negatives unless a valve is opened enough!

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I recently attended a scholarship conference through Cargill where we volunteered at a local food bank. The way I felt afterwards is how I want to feel everyday after work.

I feel that my education is to idyllic like a controlled research environment instead of the ever-varying, not-so-steady-state workings of industry. Education needs to work with industry and vice versa to better improve education so that it can teach students what is necessary for industry. The majority of engineering undergraduates will take industrial jobs after obtaining their bachelor’s degree, so higher education must teach students accordingly. If this is done properly, industry will have better engineers and colleges will see an increase in engineering college recruitment for interns and full-time. With education and industry working together to improve engineering education,

What inspired this post: I recently was offered a potential opportunity to help improve design projects within chemical engineering courses to help improve the design projects and make them more relevant to the engineering industry. I’m so excited! Do you have any suggestions? Shoot me an email at bakies2@illinois.edu. I’d be happy to hear from you!

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