Wanna Be A Chem E?

I enjoy studying math and science, now what?

I have always enjoyed math and science throughout elementary and high school. Not to say that other courses were less important, but I have always looked forward to going to math class, whether it be algebra, geometry, or pre-calculus, as well as science class, whether it be biology, chemistry, or physics. Reflecting back on why I enjoyed these two subjects, it wasn’t that my parents nudged me into pursuing math and science (or any particular course of study for that matter). The vast majority of my teachers for all the subjects I studied throughout my K-12 years were fantastic, but it wasn’t them either. If I had to pin my passion for math and science down to two traits, those would be curiosity about the world around us and the joy of solving problems. So how does the engineering fit into these two traits? To me, its the hands-on and practical application of math and science. I grew up with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, and always ended up building stuff. This evolved into fixing bigger things as I grew older like the gear shift of my bike or changing the spark plugs in a car. Collectively, engineering was the combination of curiosity, problem solving, and its application.

Why Chemical Engineering?

I entered college with the desire to study environmental engineering. A career solving problems cleaning up the air, waterways, and land can’t be bad, right? The turning point for me, however, occurred during my freshman introduction to engineering class during my very first semester in college. I couldn’t remember the name or number of the course, but what I do remember is that it was scheduled to run from 2:30 to 4pm on a Friday afternoon, and being a commuter student from Queens with a rush hour drive home from the northwest Bronx, the traffic was at the forefront of my mind. Every department would send a representative to speak with the freshmen engineers to talk about their discipline, with the hopes of recruiting students to matriculate into their courses. As some examples, civil engineers talked about the construction industry, electrical engineers about how Con Edison supplies power to the city, and mechanical engineers about how a career in HVAC heats and cools our buildings. These were interesting and I learned a lot about the different disciplines during this hour and a half block on a Friday afternoon. When it was the week for the Chemical Engineering representative to present, the person went to the front of the class and said the following (I will paraphrase):

<representative walks on stage with no introduction or pleasantries> Chemical engineering is broad… you can do anything you want! You could work in petroleum, environmental, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods or even straight chemical manufacturing. You can even go into patent law or medicine. The person who scored the highest on the MCAT from our school was a chemical engineer! Did you also know that we get paid the highest amongst all the disciplines? Nevertheless, the options for a graduate with a chemical engineering degree is limitless, and you’d be silly for not choosing it. <walks off stage>

Those three minutes (if that), knowing that a chemical engineering degree is broad and that I could still have a career in environmental (and yet have the option to choose something else) changed my career trajectory. I was able to beat the Friday afternoon traffic that afternoon, and I promptly declared my major to chemical engineering the following Monday.

Chemistry vs Chemical Engineering

I remember attending a summer science program at a major research university during my junior year of high school, and as we were selecting projects and mentors, I noticed one department was listed as Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Of course, someone asked what the difference was and no one gave a very memorable answer. Here is a good analogy for the two disciplines…

Suppose that you have a friend that makes this incredible macaroni and cheese recipe. It is easy, delicious, and everyone likes it. For simplicity sake, let’s say that it requires three ingredients (pasta, cheese, and evaporated milk), and that it is regularly made in a three-quart pot for a group of four people. No biggie right? Now suppose that you are throwing a party for 40 people, and you want to feed them your friend’s awesome mac and cheese using their recipe. You sure wouldn’t be accomplishing this with your measly three-quart pot. You somehow need to scale up.

To me, a scale up is what distinguishes a chemist from a chemical engineer. Let’s put this into context using another example. The synthesis of acetaminophen (a.k.a. Tylenol) is a common experiment in organic chemistry lab. To accomplish this, the experiment is performed in a a 125 ml flask (approximately 4 fluid ounces or a third of a can of soda), and maybe at the end of the day if all goes well, you get 0.75 ounces (or approximately 21 grams) of acetaminophen as a product. If one dose is 325 milligrams, this comes out to be approximately 56 pills that you just generated. This is all fine and good until you think about your typical pharmacy or convenience store, which sells boxes of Tylenol on their shelves. Now it would be na├»ve to think that Johnson and Johnson performs the aforementioned protocol over and over to generate the boxes and boxes of Tylenol that you see (you’re right… they don’t).

It turns out that a chemical engineer had to design a process to scale up the production so that Tylenol can be produced at a larger quantity. A chemist (Harmon Morse) came up with the way to synthesize the acetaminophen (i.e., your friend generated that awesome mac and cheese recipe), while a chemical engineer had to come up with a way to use that recipe to generate thousands of pills over and over and at the same consistency (i.e., you attempting to share that mac and cheese yumminess with your 40 friends).

Of course the knowledge and skills required to come up with the recipe (chemist), and the knowledge and skills required to scale it up (chemical engineer) are different. Using the acetaminophen example, you would need a bigger vessel than a 125 ml flask (reactor design), need to feed the ingredients in and out of the vessel at the appropriate rate and amounts (material balances and fluid flow), heat the reactor to an appropriate temperature (heat transfer and thermodynamics), and remove the acetaminophen from undesired products (separations). These are the fundamental courses in chemical engineering (material balances, fluid flow, heat transfer, thermodynamics, and separations), which are typically not seen in a traditional chemistry curriculum.