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One Girl’s Guide to Engineering School à la française

You are in for a real treat today – my colleague and dear friend, Tamara, is here to write about her engineering study abroad experience in France. She’s a smart and extremely talented woman and I am sure you will enjoy her story as much as I did…

When I took my first French classes in 7th grade, the term “engineer” conjured an image of a suspenders-wearing man who helped drive trains. There are other types of engineers (though driving trains is quite impressive and important, that is not the type of engineering I’d like to tell you about today)…

1_engineer_stereotype

Fortunately, thanks to the Penn State Women in Engineering Program’s outreach to high school students, I later learned that engineering is a very broad profession with many disciplines. Engineers can work in many different industries (medicine, food & beverage, energy) across many different geographic areas – including France.

I think I’ll always remember listening to a Penn State engineering student talk about her internship in France. At the time, I was still a high school student trying to decide what major to put on my college applications.  Yes, I liked science and math. Yes, I had fun building robots. However, hearing this student describe living and working in France was different from the typical “sales pitch” to potential engineering students. You could combine an interest in a foreign language with engineering.  Incroyable!

I had loved studying French (as well as math and science, bien sûr) all through middle school and high school. When I heard the engineering student talk about her French internship, the message I came away with was music to my ears. You don’t have to trade your French/English dictionary for a graphing calculator….you can use both.

I think you can compare engineering to a little black dress – great by itself, but even more fun when you can accessorize to your liking with business, law, or even a foreign language.

I accessorized my undergraduate studies in chemical engineering with French classes, an energy industry internship, a pharmaceutical industry internship, and a semester abroad at an engineering school in Nancy, France.

As I had continued to study both French and engineering, I decided that I wanted to apply my foreign language interest and technical skills together. Through online research, I found out about the Global Engineering Education Exchange, and selected three French Engineering schools, including l’Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine (INPL, or National Polytechnic University of Lorraine), located in Nancy, a small city in Eastern France that I knew essentially nothing about beforehand except that 1) It was in France 2) It had an engineering school.

Although I was woefully under-informed about the city I would come to call home for a semester, I would soon also learn 3) Nancy was a gorgeous city full of lovely parks and promenades, architectural treasures, cobblestone roads, and open air cafés in the warmer months. 4) Nancy was also home to many other international students, though far fewer Americans than larger French cities like Paris.

Open air café in Nancy’s town square, Place Stanislas

Open air café in Nancy’s town square, Place Stanislas

 Now a note on cultural differences and culture shock:

As a foreign exchange student, you may be welcomed by the host country, but you won’t fit in. In my opinion, that’s kind of the point – you step outside of your comfort zone both culturally and linguistically. You struggle to understand and be understood, gaining a new empathy and respect for the international students who face this challenge for their entire academic careers back in the U.S. In facing these often-frustrating challenges, you learn not just about your host country, but about your home country too. The experience will force you to think critically about your own definitions of “normal.” I think that’s a wonderful and powerful personal lesson.

So anyway, engineering school in France. Off to Nancy I went and learned how to perform chemistry lab experiments in French:

3_travaux_pratique

Chemistry lab in French seemed to me fairly similar to lab coursework I had done in the U.S., although there was a pesky difference where they sometimes use commas for decimal points (example: 20.8 is written as 20,8).  Oh, and of course, the rest of the world uses the metric system, so I became accustomed to thinking about temperatures in Celsius and lengths in centimeters and meters.

One of my fondest chemistry-lab related memories actually occurred during spring break. I took a train to the Alps to take a ski lesson (en français, of course) and work on my organic chemistry lab report from my bed & breakfast in the evenings :

A study break from organic chemistry lab writing in the French Alps

A study break from organic chemistry lab writing in the French Alps

Yes, engineering classes are demanding and require even more time and energy when they’re in French. However, as in U.S. university studies, I think it is important to make time for the unique extracurricular activities and events available. Enjoy the people, places, and celebrations for their unique character, even if (or perhaps specifically because) you are sans doute an outsider. I was some combination of lucky and open-minded, and had fun participating in French student life.

The school within INPL that I studied at was called l’École Européenne d’Ingénieurs en Génie des Matériaux (EEIGM), which translates roughly to “European School of Materials Science and  Engineering.” One of the events EEIGM hosted was le Tournoi des 4 Raquettes or “The Tournament of 4 Rackets.” TD4R was part team costume competition and part tennis/squash/badminton/ping-pong tournament.

5_TD4R

Studying in Europe is not all cathedrals and alpine skiing – both European and American college students enjoy any reason to wear ridiculous costumes. One of the funniest memories of my semester abroad turned out to be taking French public transportation from my apartment to the TD4R tournament dressed as a zebra.

That being said – the cathedrals were incredible:

Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, France, nearby Nancy in the Lorraine region

Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, France, nearby Nancy in the Lorraine region

Taking technical coursework in French was challenging, and my semester abroad threw me off-sequence in my undergraduate curriculum, delaying my graduation. It was a time-consuming and expensive accessory to my education. I pursued the experience because it was a very important goal of mine on a personal level, and that made it worthwhile to me.

I emphasize the personal aspect of this time and fiscal resource-consuming pursuit because my message to a student reading this is not “Please take my experience and hit ‘Ctrl+C’.” My intended message is that you can and should seek out opportunities that are meaningful to you on a personal level based on your own values and interests. After all, it’s your little black dress!

Finding Your “Element” (Laura – Chemical Engineer)

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce today’s engineer, Laura! She is the Engineering Manager for the project we are working on and one of my role models! She is smart, level headed, and always full of smiles and good advice. I couldn’t ask for a better person to look up to! She is one of Ryan and I’s favorite people and I really think you will enjoy hearing her story! 
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My dear friend, Erin, asked me to write something for her blog to inspire girls to become engineers… And I thought, hmm, what would be the best way to do that, other than just telling others what made me one? And also, giving a little flavor of all my adventures during my professional career? However, before I start telling you more about myself, I wanted to mention something I consider critical: choosing your career is one of the most important decisions you will make so you will want to make a good choice. The only trouble is that you may not fully understand what it means when you decide what direction you want to go. You will probably wonder – What is a Process Engineer (my actual degree)?; what is a mathematician? What do lawyers really do? What does a person actually do when they graduate with their specific degree? The bad news is, you probably won’t understand it until a few years into your professional career or luckily, during your final college years. However, the most important thing is to follow your instincts to find “your element”: that thing that you love doing; that thing you can get so immersed in it, that time at work just flies by; that thing that you can never get enough of. Remember that even if you love it, it will still likely take a lot of time and effort, but that is also true of any good thing in life that you want to be successful at, right?!
Laura Noria Field Intro Pic
Now onto my story….this is how it goes: I really liked the sciences during high school and I was really good with math, chemistry, etc. Also, my home country of Venezuela, the Oil & Gas Industry is a big part of the economy (and also where the best salaries were). So, the combination of my math/science skills and the prospects within the oil & gas industry made it a no brainer for me to become a Chemical Engineer. However, it wasn’t until the middle of my internship at the Complejo de Refinación Paraguana (Venezuela’s biggest Refinery Complex) when I really understood what my career was about and some aspects of what I would be doing in the future. I was fascinated by such a huge facility able to produce oil and multiple other products by physical, chemical, and mechanical separation processes. The final years of my career took a whole other meaning after that experience because I saw the practical applications of everything I had been learning in school. One of my favorite parts about being a Chemical Engineer is that we are really versatile and, by knowing the actual “process” (translation: that mysterious word that just means what happens with the stuff coming from the ground when it gets inside the refinery), we become very handy in multiple other fields which means we can have a really broad range of experiences.
Laura Venezuela Refinery Collage
Then, about a year after I graduated from college, I started working for ExxonMobil in Venezuela at the Operadora Cerro Negro, Heavy Crude Oil Upgrader (very similar to a refinery). That was quite something: countless hours of hard work learning the units I was in charge of by heart… Learning from the Operations crew, the older engineers…Everyday there were new things to learn! This steep learning curve actually happens with anything you do, I think…the beginnings are always hard but, at the same time fascinating. One thing about being a female engineer in the oil industry is that, although nowadays there are a lot more women dedicated to this field, I can say that is still a male dominated one. But that does not have to be a bad thing! It depends always on how you approach it. Female engineers can add a lot of value with a different perspective than men and so the collaboration between men and women usually brings about better outcomes. I can say as a female engineer, I am taken seriously by my male colleagues and we always work together to find the right answer! And, I have made some truly wonderful friends that are also female engineers!
Process Engineers
The last part of my career, I have spent it working on a fantastic project for ExxonMobil Development Company (Arkutun-Dagi Platform). It is the heaviest Topsides ever built going to an arctic-type environment. Everything was different for me: country, language, specialty (offshore vs onshore), operating conditions (remember I was coming from the Tropics and now I was designing an Arctic style platform!!). During 7 years, I have seen it all…all types of challenges and a tremendous team effort to bring something from design on paper into a reality. I also had the opportunity to work in a Korean Fabrication yard which, engineer or not, is a mind blowing experience! All that besides meeting awesome people to work with like the Kendrick’s.
AD Topsides Collage - Laura
One of the cool parts about traveling to Korea (besides the amazing experience of working in a shipyard on a huge project) is that I was able to see some of the sights around Asia…I went hiking with my team and experienced the beauty that Korea had to offer and also got to hike the Great Wall in China with my husband’s MBA class on my way for one of my trips to Korea. Having the opportunity to see more of the world is something I really enjoy!
Laura Noria Asia Travel Collage
In summary I can tell you, if you want a profession where you are ALWAYS learning (I can still say that after almost 15 years), and if you are driven by challenge….if you like to build, create, innovate, then go for it and become an engineer! Remember that an engineer can work in nearly any industry, not just oil and gas; food processing, construction, cosmetics, plastics, commodities…the opportunities are endless! My biggest advice is to never forget to follow your instincts and don’t settle for just “a” career – challenge yourself and find your “element”!

Math + Malaria: Correlating Passions

I am very excited to have Amanda on the blog today – she is a great example of someone who pursued a degree in one of the STEM subjects that have not yet been featured on the blog – she was a math major! She has a really interesting story because she was able to combine her aptitude for math with her desire to help people. I have no doubts you’ll really enjoy reading more about her and I hope you can find a way to do this yourself – combine your passions and pursue a career in that direction! 

My name is Amanda Brown Marusiak and I am currently a Public Health Associate at a large oil and gas company. My day to day job involves helping to develop programs to protect our workers from and educate them about infectious disease risks, from malaria to the flu. Our team monitors current outbreaks of disease worldwide to be prepared for what potential illnesses could come into our work facilities located all around the world. We also collect and analyze data about e effectiveness of our prevention and response programs in all our locations. You may wonder exactly how I ended up in this role, and it wasn’t the most straightforward path, but I have enjoyed every part of it, and have found a unique way to blend my passions and skills to benefit others.

Amanda Intro Collage

Although I knew I liked math, mostly because I was good at it, I entered Elon University in North Carolina as an undecided major. A couple of my professors helped me settle on mathematics, but I honestly had no clue what I would eventually do with my degree. Most people who found out I was a math major would ask me if I was going to be a teacher, which was not my ideal career path. Little did I know, I would have a seemingly un-math-related experience that would change everything.

My freshman year, I was accepted into a global service organization where I found my passion. It was a group of students working to build a health clinic in rural Ghana, west Africa, for people who had little to no access to health care. This was accomplished not by simply just raising money, but by learning about the culture of the people and understanding their needs and how we could best help them help themselves. It was a “teach a man to fish” sort of philosophy.

Amanda Ghana Collage In my sophomore year, I had an epiphany moment where a faculty mentor of mine proposed an idea that would combine both my skills in STEM and my interest in global development. I began a three year grant-funded research project to mathematically describe how malaria spreads between people and what prevention methods were most effective at protecting the most people. I felt like I had found the ultimate way to combine my skills to make the world a little better.

Amanda College Graduation, Reserach Cert

I ultimately decided my next step was to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in epidemiology (the study of disease patterns) at the University of Texas in Houston. While studying there, I secured an internship with the company I currently work for and was able to write my master’s thesis using data from the company’s malaria control program. After graduation, I dreamed of working for a non-profit to do some type of information analysis that had to do with infectious disease. Though I still have this hope, I have been lucky to be able to work in a similar role having an impact on a large amount of people in the private sector.

malaria-2014-infographic

My advice to aspiring women in STEM is that you are not alone if you aren’t sure what you want to do yet. It takes time to really figure out your purpose, and that’s ok. Many people in their 40s, 50s and beyond are still searching. What I do know, however, is that pursuing a STEM degree opens so many more doors for you, because companies want and need diverse employees (women!) who are competent in a technical field, especially in today’s global economy.

Try to seek out ways that you can merge your skills with your passions – I know someone who was passionate about baseball and wanted to pursue a career in statistics, which could make for a match if you think about it. Your skills and passion may meet outside of the office, like for my husband who loves to design and build things as a mechanical engineer, but has a heart for dogs, so has found joy in helping the local dog shelter plan and eventually build a play and training area in their new facility.

Last, but not least, take every opportunity you can to travel. You will learn and grow in more ways than you could ever imagine. One of my favorite quotes is “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” While in college I had the opportunity to go to London, South Africa, and Ghana, which changed nearly my whole life perspective.

Amanda SA & London Collage I have now had the travel bug my entire adult life, because these college experiences inspired me to learn about other cultures and ways of life. Since then I have traveled to Europe and the Mediterranean, Central America, and now Asia. I am currently living in Ulsan, South Korea, with my husband who was also a STEM major, which gave him the opportunity to live and work here, and we enjoy almost every moment of life abroad. We even brought our two dogs with us – check us out at www.minnieandmurray.com!

Amanda Personal Travels

Good luck in your journey!

Engineers Can Do Anything! (Sydney – Chemical Engineer)

It is a pleasure to have Sydney Baker telling us about herself today – she is a recent graduate of my alma mater and she’s already had some pretty cool experiences. She’s full of energy and excited to be starting her career as an engineer working in a management field – she will show you can really do anything with an engineering degree! 

Introduce Yourself:

Hello everyone! My name is Sydney Baker, Worcester Polytechnic Institute Class of 2013. While I was in school, I majored in Chemical Engineering. I am currently working for General Electric Power & Water in their Operations Management Leadership Program. What that really means is that I hold roles in manufacturing, quality engineering, and sourcing. While it is not traditional engineering, I think it’s a really cool way to use my engineering education in more management focused roles. I currently live in Schenectady, NY (near Albany), but my program is rotational for the first two years, so who knows where I could be living next!

Sydney

Why did you become an engineer?

I decided to become an engineer when I was a junior in high school. I liked science and math, so I figured – why not? I also had a chemistry teacher in high school who worked in industry for years before becoming a teacher. She was actually a member of a team that invented nicotine patches to help people quit smoking! To hear her talk about working in a technological field was fascinating and definitely inspired me to explore this world of opportunity!

What projects have you done while studying or working as an engineer?

When I was still in college, I got to work on my senior project in waste water treatment. Not only was it something that makes an environmental difference, but it was sponsored by GE, which helped me to get my full-time job offer. I also had the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa to pursue a project for my degree! While it was not as technical in nature, I definitely put my analytical skills and creativity that I learned from engineering to the test!

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Have you had the chance to travel anywhere? If so, where and why?

Other than South Africa, I have gotten to go to training courses all over the US in order to learn all about manufacturing.

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What is a fun/interesting opportunity you have had through your career as an engineer?

I think that the coolest thing I have discovered about a career after getting an engineering degree is that engineers can do anything! And I mean that! The skills that you learn about by studying math, science, and engineering are applicable in a wide range of fields. So if you’re not entirely sure what you want to do, go for engineering!

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What have you enjoyed most about being an engineer?

Every day is different and I get to work on things that really make a difference in other people’s lives. Every day I get to go to work to solve problems in order to provide power to people in developing countries all over the world – pretty cool!

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Any advice to aspiring women interested in engineering?

Remember, a girl can do whatever a boy can do…but while wearing high heels!

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White Beach

Every time we left our hotel, the tricycle driver, Raul  would ask us if we wanted to go to “White Beach” and we finally took him up on the offer.  He got his buddy  with an additional tricycle and we all headed that way. We were worried that it was going to be a very touristy beach but when we got there, we were the only foreigners on the beach and there were a lot of locals out enjoying the sun and the sea – perfect atmosphere for us.
White Beach
They had small huts with tables so one of the locals found us one and then brought us a cooler and a few blocks of ice with some beer in it.
Group in Beach Hut
It had quite the beach front view which made it even more awesome.
View from Hut
We went to the stalls nearby and got some food and we had a really delicious little lunch (approximate price for all 6 of us including drinks: $10).
White Beach Feast
We were silly and forgot towels and they didn’t have any for sale so we got sarongs instead which we showed off later and the locals got a kick out of that (they were all laughing and waving at us).
Sarongs

We loved our sarongs so much that the boys got jealous and wanted to try them out…this is when the cheering and laughing from the other beach patrons erupted.

Men in Sarongs

We spent some time swimming and hanging out in the water – it was the perfect temperature and the scenery was to die for. These pictures truly don’t do it justice.
Drinks at the Beach
Best Friends in Philippines
White Beach Group Shot
It was such a relaxing place…even the dogs were lounging around and enjoying the beautiful weather.
Dog at White Beach
One thing we discovered about the Filipino culture is that they are extremely friendly. They were very eager to talk to us and even wanted to take pictures with us which was funny.
Posing with the Locals
Wanted to take pics with us
Matt's Filipino Friend
Ben also got recruited to the volleyball team.
White Beach Volleyball
We watched the gorgeous sunset to close out one of the best days we’ve ever had.
Girls enjoying the sunset
Ryan & I White Beach Sunset

Reunited and it feels so good!

We reached our one year anniversary living in Korea and hadn’t seen most of our family and friends in that amount of time so we asked Ryan’s brother and best friend if they wanted to meet us somewhere tropical and fun. To our delight, they said yes and so we planned a trip to the Philippines for all of us to get open water dive certified. We all made our way to the small town of Moalboal on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. We took different routes to get there – Ben and his girlfriend were coming from Connecticut, Matt was coming from the Middle East, his friend Renee was coming from Baltimore, and Ryan and I were obviously coming from South Korea. We all flew in and met up at our hotel which was right on the water. It was so great to see them! The start of our incredible adventure was just about to begin…

Philippines Group Picture

Spoiler Alert: We had an absolutely wonderful time…can’t wait to tell you all about it!

Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year is a very big deal in Asia – an even bigger deal than Dec 31st. We were expecting fireworks and parades to be a big part of this day; however, it is more of a quiet family holiday in Korea – they all g home to see their family and celebrate together. To celebrate on Lunar New Year Eve, a group of us got together for dinner at the Samsung Hotel – it was great! We had happy hour, a big dinner, and went out on the town. It was a blast!

Lunar New Year Dinner

The Monday after was a holiday, so we had the day off work; we were blessed with an extremely beautiful day so we took full advantage of it by heading into the nearby town, Tongyeong. They have a cable car that takes you up to the top of a look out point which has a great view of the surrounding area. There’s one viewpoint where you can see Japan which is pretty cool.

Tongyeong Cable Car

Tongyeong Cable Car

Top of Tongyeong Cable Car

We really enjoyed our first Lunar New Year in Asia!

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