Sunita Satyapal

Sunita Satyapal

Chemical Engineer
United Technologies Research Center
Sunita Satyapal
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Greetings! I am a Group Leader at United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) in Connecticut, where I am the manager of a group of 15-20 scientists, engineers, technicians, and student interns. During the 5 years that I've been here, I've worked on exciting projects ranging from fuel cells and hydrogen storage, to CO2 removal for space suits, destruction of refrigerants, and biotechnology. Most recently, I've worked on developing methods to reduce pollutants to improve indoor air quality, and my current passion is to develop and apply 'biotechnologies' outside their conventional realm - for example- imagine 'self-repairing' materials that would heal themselves if they were torn or broken! UTRC is the central R&D organization for all of United Technologies Corporation (140,000 employees and over $25 billion), and we get to work on numerous different projects in various industries. What I enjoy most is working with all the talented people at the research center and in my group. I also enjoy coming up with ideas and have been fortunate enough to have over 30 publications so far, 5 patents issued, and over 20 patent disclosures. I have to thank my advisors and mentors all along the way for the inspiration that they may not even know they gave me. I received my B.A. in chemistry from Bryn Mawr College in 1985 and Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1990. For my Ph.D., I worked on laser diagnostics in chemistry- blowing up molecules with lasers and looking at the atomic and molecular products with other lasers. I then decided to become a professor and was a visiting prof at Vassar college for 2 years. I taught 10 courses in 4 semesters, including general chemistry, quantum, thermodynamics, analytical chemistry, instrumental methods, spectroscopy lab, and more! It was fun and I enjoyed teaching but I wanted to do more research than is possible at a small school like Vassar so I became a postdoc at Cornell at the Applied & Engineering Physics department, where I worked on laser diagnostics in combustion. I got to work on destroying chemical warfare agent simulants and to look at the products inside the flame itself using laser ionization- time-of-flight mass spectrometry. With over 25,000 tons (unfortunately!) of chemical weapons stockpiled in the U.S., there is an urgent need to develop safe ways to destroy and monitor these chemical weapons. I've also been a visiting scientist at Cornell and Columbia universities, and at Hokkaido University at the Institute of Applied Electrical Engineering in Japan (thanks to Prof. Bersohn at Columbia, who is one of my most valued mentors). That was true science- I didn't know Japanese, the other researchers didn't know English, the laser manuals were in German- but we all spoke the language of science perfectly together! I owe everything to my parents' support- my father has a Ph.D. in agriculture and soil chemistry from Michigan State University, and my mother has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Because my mother is a physics professor, she helped me and my sisters with our science homework in school, and she was the main reason all three of us turned out to be scientists/engineers. I was also fortunate enough to go to the United Nations International School in New York City, which had an advanced program that allowed us to go through college in 3 years. I'm extremely proud of my two sisters- one is an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard and just won a PYI (Presidential Young Investigator) award, and the youngest is an engineer with a background in ocean engineering, now working on ground-based satellite control! She recently traveled to France and a remote village in Malaysia to set up satellite control systems for customers. I also enjoy business travel. I got to go to one of our manufacturing plants in Italy three times to help them solve a technical problem on the factory floor (the Italian I learned came in handy!). Last year, I gave a talk in Switzerland at a conference to about 300 people and also went to Sweden and Germany to visit manufacturing plants. My main advice is to take as much math (first) and science (second) as you can at an early age (and at any age!)- and get 'hands on' experience through science projects and hobbies. Get as much summer work experience as possible. Do as many different things as you can. If you end up not being an engineer, that's ok too- all the courses will only be a plus when it comes to changing fields. More advice- keep asking questions and don't worry about whether they are good questions. If you're hesitant then use this rule: If you cannot think of the answer yourself in less than a minute, then go ahead and ask the question. Even if you don't have any questions, practice making them up. You'll finally get to a question you cannot answer yourself and then go ahead and ask it. You learn so much more by asking questions. You'll also find out what you're really interested in by the kinds of questions you come up with and by how quickly you come up with them! In terms of hobbies- I have many and one of my main challenges is finding time for them. I like reading, hiking, landscaping for wildlife, bird watching, gardening, learning languages (French, Italian, and Russian to start with), traveling, spending time with my family and our 'kids' (two big dogs and a cat), volunteer work, animal care, kite flying, painting, and writing fiction- just to name a few. One of my dreams was to live in a cabin like Henry David Thoreau. After saving for several years I was finally able to do it for 3 months after I finished school at Columbia. I lived alone in a relatively isolated cabin with 17,000 acres of state land and mountains on one side and 10,000 acres of private land on the other. I got to hike all day, paint landscapes, read, write, and think- no TV or radio or newspaper for 3 whole months! Even the snake in my kitchen sink and the 15 mice I had to trap (in 'have-a-heart' traps of course) and the porcupines eating the outside of the cabin were a good experience (I can say now that there are no snakes in my kitchen!). My overall advice is: if you have a dream- you have to try hard to make it happen and you have to take risks. "To live is to risk dying. To believe is to risk despair. To try is to risk failure. But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing". (An excerpt from the 'President's Newsletter' from Phi Delta Kappa (November 1982)) Good luck! Feel free to email me with questions. UTC website:

Answers by Dr. Sunita Satyapal


The most important and rewarding part of my job is the ability to have an impact by setting the strategy and direction of our research and development program. Enabling world class scientists and engineers to solve the energy challenges of our nation and of our planet is truly inspiring.

The the amount of time you spend with family depends on the type of job. Many chemical engineering jobs have relatively fixed hours and recognize that family time is important so you can get home in time for dinner or to spend time with kids. It also depends on the specific company you work for- some have flex time, telework options and alternate work schedules. However, many science/engineering jobs do have certain periods (such as when a major project deliverable is due) that may require you to work longer hours for some period. As you climb up the career ladder, it is certainly true that juggling family and work is challenging. But as long as you have the right tools- stay organized and have a good team, it is definitely possible to make it work. I know many people with kids and a high powered science/engineering career- even if it means they had to take some time off during some periods. Another suggestion is to build a solid technical foundation and stay flexible. As I always say: you can’t build a treehouse without a tree- so focus on getting the right foundation and tools and don’t think that you won’t be able to keep up!  Good luck.

Hi Tanya,

While “drafting” alone may not be the most applicable, the fact that you love the subject of chemical reaction engineering is great. There are lots of areas you can work in. Examples include managing plant processes and designing systems for optimal operation. Chemical reaction engineers develop models and reactor designs for various applications and can be in demand because many industries rely on the synthesis and processing of chemicals and materials. For instance, the chemical, energy and oil industries, as well as environmental engineering, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, nuclear engineering, and electronic device fabrication – all make use of chemical engineers. Keep up the great work and take diverse classes to get the basics (physics, chemistry- thermodynamics, as well as materials science, etc.) in addition to chemical engineering.

Hi Kikuye,

It’s great to hear your enthusiasm. You certainly don’t have to be stuck behind a desk all the time if you choose a career in chemical engineering. Though most people spend at least some time at their desks (i.e. computers), I know engineers who have done many exciting things both inside and outside their laboratories.

I used to spend a lot of time in the laboratory before I ultimately became a manager of the entire department. In one of my jobs, my company had a manufacturing plant in Italy and they sent me there (and also paid for Italian lessons I volunteered to take) 3 or 4 times to help test a new sensor technology we were developing. I got to work with engineers and test out the new method.

Another time, I was working on novel CO2 removal technology for the space suit and space shuttle and got to go to the labs where they were developing these systems- the astronauts used to come there before trying on their suits and other new technologies and once I got to see an astronaut visiting the lab. Another time, we were exploring biological waste degradation systems and I went to Sweden to visit one of the state-of-the-art plants and see what we might be able to learn and bring back to our organization.

So there are many options and a lot will depend on your own initiative whatever job you get. I do suggest getting a strong fundamental knowledge of the subject though – you can’t build a treehouse without a tree so while in school, it’s good to build up strong roots and a good foundation.

I wish you all the best and keep up your great spirit of adventure!



Thanks for your questions.  If you are interested in the field, then it’s great that you are considering chemical engineering.  With an A in Chemistry and a B in Physics, that is an excellent start.  The main thing is your interest and what you would like to do ultimately with a chemical engineering degree.  There is a lot of information online about the top schools for chemical engineering.

For example, you can see: undergraduate-schools-5353821.html

or engineering-schools.html

MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, U. MN, U. of TX (Austin), U. of Wisconsin Madison, UC Santa Barbara, U. of Delaware- are all examples.

But one of the most important things is to get a feel for the type of school you like- large ivy league or a state school.  If possible you should visit or at least view their websites.

As for getting your GPA up, you can practice other skills like test taking and study habits.  A book you may be interested in is Dancing with Your Books, the Zen Art of Studying.  It helps develop concentration skills and study habits. There are numerous other sources to help with increasing focus and improving your overall grades, regardless of subject. 

Hi Jane,

Engineering is a versatile field and if you like physics and math instead of memorizing chemical formulas, there are still jobs in chemical engineering that may interest you.  Chemical processing and chemical manufacturing related jobs typically involve more organic or inorganic chemistry but can also include reactor design and processing which involves math and physics.  If you’re designing instruments or involved in other fabrication processes there may be less chemistry involved. 

Since chemistry is often considered the ‘central science’ it’s probably good to have a basic understanding of it, regardless of what type of engineer you’d like to be.  If you really dislike chemistry and don’t want to pursue chemical engineering, then other options like mechanical engineering or electrical engineering may be of interest.  My advice is to take as much math, physics and chemistry to get a solid foundation (along with your engineering classes).  Physical chemistry might be more of interest to you than organic chemistry if you don’t like memorizing formulas. 

As for health hazards, it’s all about ensuring the proper handling of equipment and chemicals regardless of the job you have.  Most companies are very responsible about providing proper controls and conditions for chemical related work.  As for your question about if you have to always work in the lab- the answer is no. There are many examples where engineers do theoretical calculations and cost analysis in addition to designing processes or systems rather than actually carrying out the experiments themselves.  Often you work as a team, especially in large companies.  You might also want to search online for “what do chemical engineers do?” to find a lot more detail that may give you some ideas. 

Hi Akshara,

Although the easiest way to get an internship is through on-campus company recruiting, another way is by searching online or through professional publications.  It also depends on what field you are in.  For example, there are magazines like Chemical and Engineering News (C&E News) that often advertise.  Other professional societies like the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society or American Society of Mechanical Engineers have advertisements or recruiting events at major conferences.  Very often, major conferences hold networking and career events and you can look online to view their programs.  Since it is not always easy to get a visa to work abroad, you may also want to search for local companies in your area of India.  Most will have good websites- major international companies have several locations in India and going directly to their Human Resources Department on their website can help answer your questions.  Your professors should also have connections and most are happy to help find intern positions for their students.

I definitely recommend getting an intern position as an undergraduate- all the best!

Hi Jazzmin,
Thanks for your great question. There are actually a variety of answers depending on the type of job you get as a chemical engineer and the type of employer.

If you end up working for a large company, such as a large chemical or other industry product manufacturing company, you could end up working on a team with engineers, scientists, technicians and others. Depending on the company's products, you may work with different types of engineers- chemical, mechanical, electrical, etc. It's likely you would work with chemical engineers and chemists and biochemists. But depending on the type of job you have, you could also interact with people from multiple departments with backgrounds in business/financial management, marketing, law (eg, intellectual property), information technology, training/workforce development, international/policy affairs, etc. Some may not have any science/engineering background. If you prefer and depending on the job and specific project you are working on, you could also work more closely with chemical engineers and chemists. There is a lot of flexibility.

On the other hand, if you work in a very small company, you may work with fewer chemical engineers/people with similar backgrounds and would be working more with an interdisciplinary team. Since there could be a very small number of employees, you could be one of the few chemical engineers. You could work more closely with your direct boss in a smaller company.

In summary, there is a lot of flexibility and it depends on the type of job and the employer- both the type of employer (eg type of company) and the size of the company).

You should first ask what type of engineering class is being offered by your high school. If you are interested in chemical or biomedical engineering, it may be very valuable to take a basic engineering course. You will benefit from a good foundation in basic courses such as math, physics, chemistry, and biology. The engineering course might be tailored to give you a broad overview and it would be good to ask the instructor for more details and tell her/him about your long term interests.

Dear Stephanie,

Communication skills, including both writing and speaking skills, are extremely important. Depending on the type of job you have, you'll probably write technical reports, possibly articles for publication and material that may be used for filing patent applications. You may end up writing material for the layperson such as information for a quarterly or annual report. You could also write proposals for new research ideas and will usually write up the results of your work. As for your question about mission statements- you could end up writing them but this is usually a very minor example of the writing you would typically do.

Speaking skills are also very important. You will probably give presentations using power point slides and your audience may vary from a few people in a company to a Board meeting to a technical conference that could have more than a hundred people. As you progress in your career, you may be asked to make a keynote speech, give remarks at a large conference or participate on a panel in front of an audience at a technical meeting. I've had to give talks to audiences of more than 2,000 people and highly recommend that you take whatever communication classes you can at this stage in your studies. Practicing your speaking skills and perhaps taking debate classes, would help give you a solid foundation along with your engineering classes.

Good luck with your studies!