Hellooo, happy mid-semester break! For this blog, I thought I would give you a different perspective on what chemmat has to offer, so some of my lecturers have kindly offered some of their experiences and advice!
Amanda DiIenno, Thomas Loho and Steve Matthews 🤗
What made you decide to study chemical engineering?
Amanda – I really wanted to be a doctor or a pharmacist until I discovered chemistry, physics, and calculus. I was still interested in medicine but really wanted to learn about the making of pharmaceuticals and the research behind it. In the USA, this is a very large part of chemical engineering. Because I was interested in the biological side as well, I did an additional major in Biomedical Engineering as well. Yes, I’m probably one of those people that helped developed superbugs when I was younger.
Thomas – I loved the materials science paper in 1st year and that’s what made me decide to do chemmat. Once in it and exposed to the reality of process engineering, I didn’t like it at first. But over time I could see how cool it is that a chemical/process engineer is sort of like an overseer that connects all of the parts made by other engineers (pumps, mechanical arms, conveyor belts, etc) into one big chemical plant. I like to describe chemical engineering as the bridge between the ideal-world laboratory and the real-world chemical plant.
Steve – I chose Chemmat because it was the stuff to do with materials that got me really interested. As it turns out, it is more of a Process engineering degree with a Materials specialisation…..I have emphasised Process engineering to highlight that it is all about processing “stuff” from one form into another….whether that is extracting high-value products from raw materials/waste materials, getting petrol from crude oil, powering turbines from steam, making cleaner forms of energy production etc, etc, etc….and also to emphasise that it is NOT a chemistry degree. Sure we use aspects of chemistry like balancing reactions for mass and energy balances, but the chemistry is simply another tool to help you do stuff, not an end unto itself.
What is your favourite job/project you have ever worked on?
Amanda – that’s going to be my fourth-year design project. We developed a proof of concept reactor that has a built-in separation process (liquid-liquid extraction unit). I was on a great team and we had a lot of fun taking a crazy idea (that our professors didn’t think was going to go actually work) and designing and making a working proof of concept. I just wish we would have patented it; the same idea was patented about 4 years later and was just purchased last year for $500 Million USD…oh well.
Thomas – Nanoindentation, which made me decide to spend another 4 years doing a PhD project based on it. You’ve heard that scientists are just people with sticks poking at stuff to see how they react. Well with nanoindentation, I am literally poking at lots of different materials with a really tiny diamond stick to see how they react.
Steve – Favourite job… working as a thermal spray R&D manager in Belgium after my PhD – not so much management but full-on applied research and development. If you gave me a piece of paper and told me to write down everything I would want in my perfect job, this job was WAY better than that!! I got to work with the latest in thermal spraying equipment, spraying powder that was $1000/kg, working on secret squirrel type world-first projects to do stuff that it says in the textbook is impossible to do (but we did it anyway!!), and got to fly all over the world to conferences and research centres to develop the product and equipment.
Favourite project … Thermal spray project which is all about trying to re-establish mussels and oysters in the Hauraki Gulf. My idea is to try and develop an “optimised” coating surface that will attract mussel and oyster larvae to settle and grow. Lots of really fascinating stuff to do with surface topography, composition, surface chemistry and manufacturing. The idea is that we will spray coatings onto stainless sheets that will be retrofitted to existing marine infrastructure like wharves, so we use the current industrial infrastructure to develop what will effectively be massive artificial reefs in the middle of the industrialised sections of the harbour.
What is some advice you would tell your first-year self?
Amanda – I have two pieces of advice that I wish were given to me back in first year. 1) Failing is okay and part of the learning process. When you fail, go meet with the tutors and/or instructor to learn from it. 2) Join a study group sooner rather than later so you can learn from everyone’s failures not just your own.
Thomas – Don’t make decisions too quickly simply based on how hard/easy you think it would be. I have closed a lot of doors in the past simply because I thought it would be too hard. On the other hand, I have also jumped at easy opportunities too quickly, which made me lose the opportunity to say yes to bigger, better things. I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider the difficulty of things before starting it, but all I’m saying is for the big decisions in life, you have to properly think long and hard about it.
Steve – I would tell my first-year self to find a specialisation that you are passionate about and work your butt off throughout your degree, as you really do get out way more than you put in in terms of your career afterwards…..at least in my opinion! You are highly unlikely to get a job doing exactly what you covered in lectures, and so you will always come across situations where you need to get up to speed on complex technical stuff as part of your job, and this is where all the skills you develop about “learning and applying stuff” at Uni becomes critical to your job.