Joining us today, we have Elizabeth Stewart who is currently pursuing her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Liz and I met in college where we both got our bachelor’s degree in engineering – Liz in Chemical Engineering and mine in Mechanical Engineering. We had all kinds of fun and even got to take a flight over Worcester together in our trustee mentor’s plane to get an aerial view of our campus right before we graduated. She’s done some amazing things while continuing her education and I don’t want to spoil any of her stories, so read on to find out what she’s been up to…
Why did you become an engineer?
I became an engineer because I wanted to work on solving technical problems that have a big impact on society. I chose to major in chemical engineering, so I could learn to think in a manner that is useful for solving a large variety of problems. Chemical engineers work on problems across many scales ranging from the creation of nanoparticles to the design of large manufacturing plants.
I know chemical engineers who are working in processing plants making chemicals, running nuclear reactors, designing medical devices, manufacturing consumer products, making wine, engineering microbes for next generation fuels, designing novel catalysts, the list could go on and on. I think it is pretty amazing to be trained in a manner that is so versatile that it can be used to work on so many different types of problems.
What kind of research do you work on?
I have always been particularly fascinated by biological problems. Currently, I am using my engineering tools to research bacterial biofilms. Bacterial biofilms are aggregates of bacterial cells surrounded by protective matrix materials (polysaccharides, proteins, and DNA) that are resistant to treatment with antibiotics. Biofilms can form on medical devices and cause patients to become extremely sick. I look at biofilms as a material and try to understand at a fundamental level how the structure and mechanics of biofilms impact their resilience. Here is a shameless plug for a paper I wrote, if you want to check out some of my work.
I am also interested in engineering education and the best techniques for teaching engineers. Engineers are often required to be interdisciplinary when tackling problems, so there has been an emphasis at universities on creating interdisciplinary learning environments. In addition to my technical research, I have begun doing research to investigate interdisciplinary learning in graduate education.
What do you want to do when you finish your PhD?
My goal is to become a chemical engineering professor, so that I can teach other people the tools to approach the world as an engineer and continue to do my own research on scientific problems.
What places have you lived in or traveled to while studying or working as engineer?
As an engineer, I have had the opportunity to live in Worcester, MA (WPI), Columbia, South Carolina (University of South Carolina), Bangkok, Thailand (Chulalongkorn University), Rochester, NY (ExxonMobil Chemical Films), & Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan).
When you do research for a living, you get to travel to meetings all over the world to discuss your work with other scientists and learn about the work that they have been doing as well. During graduate school I have travelled to Nashville, TN, Salt Lake City, UT, Washington, DC, Lindau, Germany, Copenhagen, Denmark, Mount Desert Island, ME, Miami, FL, Boston, MA, and San Francisco, CA to learn and discuss research with others.
Here are some pictures from some of the exciting adventures I have had while traveling for work:
Here I am with my friend, Amy, before the Country Music Awards (CMAs). Lucky for me, the CMAs were the same week as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting held in Nashville!
I took a trip with my labmates, Lilian and Aayush, to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks before our conference in Salt Lake City.
I attended a short course on fluorescence microscopy at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratories in Maine. The labs were right on the water, so it felt like summer camp for scientists. In addition to learning microscopy and discussing science, I was able to use my fine honed New Englander skills to help with the lobster boil on the last day!
I presented my work in Copenhagen, Denmark for the Eurobiofilms conference. I saw some famous sights around the city, including Nyhaven (the New Harbor). The conference attendees were welcomed very warmly with a reception at the Copenhagen Town Hall with town hall pancakes. They were very tasty!
Vinnie (my boyfriend) met me in Scandinavia and we travelled to Bergen, Norway after the conference. In the pictures below, we are in front of Bryggen and then kayaking in the fjords. The fjords of Norway are one of the most beautiful places I have ever been!
I went to Yosemite National Park with my brother, Andrew, soon to be sister-in-law, Hailey, and fellow Michigan Engineer, Huanan, before the AIChE Meeting in San Francisco.
My research group had a reunion with current and past members in San Francisco. It is great to connect with people with training similar to yours to see how they are doing and where their careers are taking them.
What is an interesting opportunity you have had through your career as an engineer?
One of the coolest opportunities I have had as an engineer was attending the Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates. I highly encourage all young researchers to apply for this unique opportunity. Young scientists and researchers from all over the world meet in Lindau, Germany to learn from the Nobel Laureates. I attended the interdisciplinary meeting with laureates from physics, chemistry and physiology/medicine and it was an incredibly inspiring experience to hear about the scientific journeys of the laureates and my peers from across the globe. I received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to attend the Lindau Meeting.
The American delegation of young researchers at the Lindau Meeting.
I really enjoyed listening to stories and getting advice from Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto with my roommate for the week, Markita as well as chatting with other young scientists.
I also had the chance to check out Lake Constance with Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies.
After the meeting, I took advantage of being in Europe and went on vacation with my Mom to Italy and southern France.
Any advice to aspiring women interested in engineering?
- Work for people who you consider role models. I am very fortunate that I am able to work for people who I have a great amount of respect for. If I am able to teach, mentor and care for students in the way that my advisors work with me and their other students, I am certain I will succeed in my career. If you don’t have the privilege to control this, seek out other mentors for this support.
- Build a support system of people who respect and care for you in and outside your field. Sometimes work is hard. Research can consist of long days in the lab, analyzing data, or writing up results. I will be honest. The majority of your data will not be groundbreaking. Share your life with people who will be there for you in the ups and downs of your work.
- Dream big and work on problems that inspire you. Personally, I have found that I work best when I am working on problems that could lead to helping people in some way (even if the work may not be used for many, many years). This drives me to work hard. Some people are driven by seeing a product made in front of them, making the most efficient process possible, or working to lead companies to success. Try to reflect on what inspires you to work hardest and pursue a career in that direction.
Thanks for reading this far and thanks to Erin for featuring me on her blog!