So, what is chemical engineering for, anyway?

academics chemical engineering chemistry
By Abhiram

What is Chemical EngineeringChemical engineering is a comprehensive and vast field of study with far-reaching impact. I have been a practicing chemical engineer in the biotechnology industry for the last 5 years, and prior to that, I earned my doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Over the last 10 years, I have seen the evolution and importance of chemical engineering fundamentals in academia and industry.

In this blog post, I want to share some of my perspectives to answer a fundamental question I had during my undergraduate studies: “Are all these classes and theoretical calculations important practically, or am I just wasting my time?”

Chemical engineering as a degree offers an extremely versatile career path:

When I tell people that I have a degree in chemical engineering, they usually think I work with oil and natural gas! That is a common stereotype of chemical engineers among non-engineers. However, chemical engineering is extremely versatile. Core chemical engineering principles are operative across industries, including oil and natural gas, fine chemicals, textiles/clothing industry, dyes and coloring, foods, polymers, plastics, rubbers, surface coatings and paints, oils, oleochemicals, commodity soaps, detergents, pharmaceuticals, cancer-curing biotechnology medication. So, every aspect of life and living is influenced by raw materials that are manufactured using core chemical engineering principles. Consequently, these are all the industries that you can touch with a background in chemical engineering.

My own career is a testament to this fact: I got a bachelor’s in chemical engineering with a focus on polymers and plastics engineering. My PhD thesis focused on purifying proteins from cheese whey using high performance materials (food/dairy industry), and I am currently a principal engineer in the biopharmaceutical industry to manufacture critical medication for unmet medical needs. The common link between all these industries is that the same chemical engineering principles apply. The key to success in a satisfying chemical engineering program is to have a sense of “purpose” while studying. Without this context and a sense of purpose, students usually don’t feel excited by a math-heavy degree like chemical engineering. I did not know where my education would apply when I was an undergraduate student – so I pursued a doctoral program to understand this path better.

Chemical engineering classes in an undergraduate program have an important part to play in industry for a technical career – with some caveats:

When I was an undergraduate student, I took several classes – 10 courses in chemistry, 6 courses in several levels of engineering mathematics and several engineering classes like structural mechanics, mass and energy balances, transport phenomena, process dynamics and process control, and even organization behavior. I often wondered whether I was wasting my time in all these classes. I was terribly conflicted between my love for chemistry and my desire to do something relevant and practical for society. When I transitioned to a doctoral program in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, I learned that the purpose of the more academic aspects of chemical engineering was to find practical solutions to everyday problems.

However, I also learned that undergraduate courses need to be restructured in order to sustain students’ interests. As a TA for Process Dynamics and Control, I noticed that the theory portion of the class digressed frequently into the fundamentals and properties of mathematical functions (Laplace transforms). These were important to understand this class, but the properties of Laplace transforms could have been covered in a different engineering math course as a pre-requisite. I frequently had students ask me if they would be required to use these functions in industry.

So, when I was invited to teach a class on biopharmaceutical separation processes at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, I promised myself that I would make this class as “real-life-relevant” as possible. I did teach the fundamental chemical engineering concepts, the relevant theories behind the design of different unit operations, but I also solved real-world industry problems with my students, so they could understand where these equations and theories led. I was glad to to drive the point that a fundamental, theoretically robust understanding of principles can help solve real world problems.