The Chemical Engineer: The discovery

Just a few days ago, as I got home from work, my 5-year-old nephew walked to me and asked a series of questions: “Aunty what do you do? What does an engineer do?” and a whole set of how-questions which just made me smile. He would know what I had no clue of till all the way in university. What most people don’t get to know off till later in life. I remember watching a TEDTalk: Inspiring the next generation of female engineers by Debbie Sterling. She presents one of the questions she normally asks people: “Close your eyes and picture what an engineer looks like…..Raise your hand if you pictured anyone like me”. I must admit, like most people, growing up, the picture I had of an engineer was a male mechanic or bridge constructor or an electrician.

Did you know that there are over 200 types of engineering? From mining, aerospace, agriculture, biomedical, biological and biochemical systems, automotive, computer, civil, electrical, mechanical, metallurgical, food, environmental, chemical…

I actually didn’t know any of this even as I was applying for my undergraduate studies. I’ve often have to answer the question: “How did you choose to do Chemical engineering”. And I wish there was a much clever answer than this:

Towards the end of high school, I still didn’t have a clear picture of which career to pursue. When it was finally time to apply for university though, I realised I wanted to major a degree with mathematics involved. Being a maths-lover, that sounded quite reasonable. Someone suggested engineering and I would be lying if I say at some point as a kid when adults ask “and what do you want to be when you grow up?”, engineer was even part of my vocabulary or options. At this point I still had no clue what engineering was about, but figured if it had some maths, I was going to enjoy it. Then I thought, physics wasn’t my strongest so that’d eliminate electrical engineering and mechanical. Now the lot had to be between Chemical Engineering and Civil Engineering. Long story short, coin was tossed and Chemical Engineering won the biding. Not the best choice algorithm if you ask me, because going in, I still had no idea what engineering was about. So you can imagine how I shaken I got on the first day of Chemical Engineering, when 3 sophisticated looking lecturers walked in to give us a welcome and one of them thought to give us a wake up call that of all 100+ of us, only about 30% would graduate within 4 years. Chemical Engineering didn’t seem like the best idea after all, I thought to myself.

So for 4 years, I got to build up an understanding of what engineering was (funny how it took me that long). Was it fun? — yes, even more than I anticipated. Was it easy? — not everyday, it sure wasn’t a smooth run. I had moments I doubted my capabilities, I doubted my choices. But what made it worth it and kept me going most of the times was that this was my choice and the team of family, friends, classmates, mentors and lecturers. So I got to see where I wanted to be.

Looking back at this journey, I wouldn’t change anything because it got me to amazing places with amazing individuals. However, what I would want for younger individuals growing up, is to not stumble upon engineering or other careers because not everyone gets that opportunity. I’d rather have them informed and given platforms to nurture their passions from an early age.

This not a career guidance series, because that would require more professional and experienced people in the field, with greater understanding and information, but a review of what that Chemical Engineering undergraduate journey was like for me. Some truths and details I wish I knew going in. Some aspects I got to discover along the journey. Some bits I wanted to apply moving forward.

First in the series is: The transition period. From the application process to starting the first day of chemical engineering.