Greetings from Michigan!

That’s right, I just completed my sixth move in 3 years. On Friday after my last final, I packed up my apartment in Urbana, Illinois. On Saturday, we left at 6 am to drive through Ohio so I could (finally) renew my driver’s license then continued up to northern Michigan. After dropping all of my boxes in my room, I soon left to go back to Ohio and visit my family for less than 24 hours before returning to Michigan on Sunday. Quite the turnaround, right? But I do have exciting news about all this moving business: 1.) I’m living closer to my family now than I have since leaving for university! 2) I GOT A NEW CAR AND IT’S BEAUTIFUL. (Because I needed it for work!)

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My new car: a Chevy Cruze 2014!! (This is the first vehicle I’ve ever owned personally. I’ve never actually had my own car.)

So now that I’m settled in Michigan, I started my internship with Dow Corning on Monday. It’s only been three days, but I can already tell it’s going to be a great summer and that I’m going to learn so much. My head is currently spinning a little bit from all the chemical processes I’ve learned the past few days and that’s a good thing! In addition to work, I’ve also been spending time getting to know my roommates. I really do miss my roommates from Illinois right now, but I feel very blessed to have three beautiful women to live and get to know this summer. And this morning, one of my roommates reminded me of a reason why I love engineering.

My joy of engineering is: not wearing pant suits!

All summer, I’ll be working as a manufacturing engineering intern at Dow Corning on a specific unit. One of my roommates is a marketing intern so she’ll actually be working in the Corporate Center all summer wearing business clothing. I think marketing is incredibly important and a necessity in any chemical company. That’s just honestly not my thing. My first day at work, I ended my day walking around my unit in business casual clothing with heels. True engineering in the work force doesn’t happen in a suit. You need to be able to get dirty while crawling through equipment, climbing up 50 feet in the air to check a bad pressure gauge, testing samples in a lab, walk around inspecting your unit, etc.

On my second day of work, my operator stopped by my office and told me he was happy to see me wearing jeans to work. Why? Because I looked ready to do really get to work. There is definitely a time and place in my line of work where I need to wear a suit, but I’m happy that I can wear jeans to work most days. It means that I’m ready for whatever work I have that day whether it’s sitting in meetings or exploring my unit getting to know a new chemical process. I’m so excited for work this summer. I became an engineer to develop new technology which would continue advancing technology and making the world a better place. I think Dow Corning will really empower me to do this every day. All I can do is thank the people like my CHEM 203 TA who first told me about Dow Corning and my recruiters who have given me this fantastic opportunity.

This may sound strange, but I always looked forward to owning my textbooks in college. In high school, I loved receiving paperback books when we started a new novel because it meant the book was mine. I love to read and add to my own personal library.

In college, I think ownership of a textbook is a student’s opportunity to create a library of resources for use in his or her future career. When I worked at my internship over the summer, my mentor constantly referenced the shelf of textbooks he kept after graduating college. He used these books to answer my questions, ensure he understood patterns in refinery processes, double check design parameters, etc.

Textbooks are a crucial source of learning for all college students. However, textbooks are also extremely expensive. With the high cost of college, it can be difficult to find the means to pay for both tuition and new textbooks at the beginning of a new semester.

A new report surfaced this week on textbooks and here’s what the study found on textbooks:

  • Students spend ~$1200 on textbooks per year.

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    My Spring 2014 semester textbooks.

  • Textbook prices have increased 82% over the past 10 years.
  • 65% of students do not buy required textbooks because they’re so expensive.
  • 94% of students not buying required textbooks are worried about how this decision will negatively impact their grade.

There are methods to lower costs which were not included in the study. I could have spent $900 on new textbooks this semester, but instead I’m borrowing and buying used books from students for $150. But sometimes, that’s not an option when a brand new book is being used or a new edition of a textbook comes out. Book exchanges and borrowing does not change the fact that textbook prices have a negative impact on students.

Students should not be forced into buying brand new versions of their textbooks. In a digital age, more textbooks need to be available online and through open source technology. If the major cost of printing is taken out of textbook pricing, costs can be significantly lower. These types of textbook media are becoming more available, but not quickly enough to meet student demand. In the mean time, textbook publishers need to search for more ways to lower textbook costs so that students may receive a good education, regardless of their financial situation.

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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My research program at the University of Alabama in Summer 2012 was 50% female because it targeted minorities and women in engineering.

Driving through the refinery, I notice a five bright blue port-a-potties lined up in a row. On the end, a sign is hastily pasted on the last one. It┬áreads “Women”.

Coworkers casually discuss a boss’s maternity leave: “Maybe after her third or fourth [child], she won’t come back.”

As I walk into my first lunch with interns at the refinery, I immediately count the number of girls in the room: 3/15.

Working a refinery as an engineer, I expected a little gender bias. There are definitely more men working at it than women. The situations mentioned above are the moments that stuck out to me. The rest of my first week of work has run smoothly and enjoyably. I know male engineers notice the gender skew to a certain degree. As a girl, these moments are painfully obvious to me when my coworkers comment on an engineer being a mother, not realizing their poor phrasing. After two years, I’m used to having male dominated classes and slight undertones, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice. That doesn’t mean that sometimes it doesn’t still irk me.

As a white girl who grew up in a middle class suburb in Ohio, it’s always strange for me to realize I’m a minority. I have nothing to complain in the grand picture. As a woman in engineering, I do not suffer the prejudice that some people suffer due to their race. I’m fortunate. People express joy when they learn I’m a girl pursuing science and it means that I shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding someone to marry (someday). There are also quite a few great scholarship opportunities and clubs to join such as the Society of Women Engineers.

Is this enough?

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My female engineer support group.

Even though as a female engineer I’m not exposed to hatred and/or racism, underlying sexism is a problem. The US does not have enough science and engineering graduates. The US government and colleges are having a lot of trouble recruiting girls to study science, math, technology and engineering. How will they be encouraged to continue studying STEM when people unknowingly discourage them? In order to not simply recruit women in engineering but to maintain their presence in it, underlying sexism needs to be ended. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. By actively protesting it, we create a better world for female engineers to come.

Disclaimer: This post is made to reflect on my experience as a female engineer as outlined in my welcome page and not on my employer. Thank you!

Personal note: Hello! I’m alive, back in the US and already in Texas for a summer internship. It’s been a while, huh? I must apologize for absence. Between traveling through Scotland and Ireland, returning to my hometown in Ohio and then moving to Houston, my life has been too crazy to do much of anything. Now my life is returning to a normal, less crazy schedule as I start work so I’ll be back to (hopefully) weekly posts. Even though I’m back in America, I will continue posting study abroad stuff about adjusting back to the US and its education system throughout the next several months along with a few special posts about London, Scotland and Ireland.

I spent less than a week at home before moving to Texas.

A lot of people have been asking me if I’ve been in culture shock because I came back to the US and immediately moved to Texas. When I was home, I spent most of my days running errands (personal and work related) where I would leave at 9 am and come home at 5 pm. Then I would do something with my family like watch my brother play baseball (he’s a phenomenal pitcher!) and afterwards meet up with a friend from high school to catch up. I successfully closed down two ice cream stands and one restaurant while I was home. I was so busy running around that there was nothing to adjust to. I had a list of things to do everyday and I made sure I completed them.

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Houston feels like another city to explore on my trip around the world.

That may sound a little rash, but I am living in a new place. If the radio stations can be judged, a large chunk of the population prefer Spanish to English. There’s also a fair amount of history in Houston and little places to see, along with a few kept secrets like the red button on Preston Bridge. I’m still close to the ocean so Houston could be Swansea… except the temperature is twice as hot and there are Southern, not British, accents.

So what am I doing in Houston?

Well, I had my first day of work today at LyondellBasell’s Houston oil refinery. I planned on starting on Monday, but was unable. I’m interning on a port, so I’m required to have a US port clearance called a TWIC card from TSA (yes, TSA of the airport security fame, my favorite government officials) in order to work. A word of advice to engineers who plan on studying abroad: If you have a job lined up after coming back to the US, find out if you need a TWIC card before you leaving. I had to wait two days without pay for my TWIC card, but it could delayed my start date by up to two weeks. One poor co-op has been unable to start work since May 20 because he is still waiting on his TWIC card after over a month.

LyondellBasell’s Houston oil refinery at night.

TWIC cards are a standard need for any employee in a port whether it be Toledo, Ohio or Houston, Texas. However, as interns, students cannot afford to live without pay waiting on the US government to send a special card. It is important to issue clearances for people to work on ports because they are vital part of the US’s economy and security. I think there is a better way to do this than what is currently in place. Both visits to the TWIC offices took only 15 minutes, but when I called to schedule an appointment to pick up my TWIC card, I was initially told I could not activate it until July. This would have been impossible and I was prepared to hold a stakeout in the TWIC office to get my card. It turned out the appointment center didn’t know what they were talking about and I activated my card without a problem. I have a number of suggestions for how to improve this process that I might send to the US government, but this is an engineering education blog, so I’m not going to talk about that now. Instead I’ll say this:

Colleges (and even high schools) should educate students on different standards they need to meet in order to be employed so that students are aware of their existence, even if they don’t need to meet all of them.

I barely know anything about the FE or PE. I’m not even sure if I’m correct using those acronyms. I’m pretty sure you need to pass one to become an engineer and then another one is a good idea to get after working as an engineer. I think my classes will talk more about this senior year, but I’d rather I actually was instructed in this if it’s relevant to my future.

So what am I doing in Houston exactly?

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Me on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. I’ll miss study abroad, but I’m excited for all that Houston has to offer!

I guess I never fully answered this. My internship at Lyondell’s Houston refinery is with the unit engineers group. In a plant, there are lots of different machines that do different jobs. These machines are called units. The oil we receive on the port is a mix of everything from jet fuel to diesel to automotive lubricant to gasoline to things I didn’t even know existed. My unit is the crude unit so it separates everything in the oil into the different parts as best it can. After this the gasoline isn’t quite ready for your car yet though and every part of the oil is run through more units. But you get the idea. I’m not sure what the actual project I’ll be doing yet is, but I’m still learning quite a bit.

Working with oil makes the treehugger in me kind of sad. But I know that this is going to be an amazing learning opportunity. I want to use this industrial experience to see how engineering education should change in order to properly train engineers for their future careers and I’m going to do it all day, everyday for the whole summer. I can’t wait.

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