August 30, 2007Her job: Sr. Instrument & Electrical Engineer, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I work in the chemical industry at a facility that makes plastic pellets: high density polyethylene, polypropylene and a polystyrene plastic known as K-Resin. The plastic pellets are sold to other companies who transform them into the plastic products we buy. My job is to help my company make the pellets safely. We study the process for making the pellets to determine high-risk scenarios, and then we determine what needs to be done to reduce the risk. If the process design cannot be changed, then I design and install safety systems, which monitor the process for unsafe conditions and shut the process down if an unsafe condition is detected.
Why did you choose engineering?
My high school counselor noticed I was very good in math and science, so she talked to me about becoming an engineer. After listening to her and deciding I really did enjoy math and science, I decided to study electrical engineering.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I went to Texas A&M University and earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
Working in a chemical plant, I have responsibility for installing field devices that monitor process conditions such as temperatures, pressures and flows. I also have responsibility for installing final control devices such as control and shutdown valves. I connect all of these devices as inputs and outputs to computerized control systems. The real fun is programming the control system. I study the risk scenarios, and then write flow diagrams to design the logic. The control systems are programmed using the logic flow diagrams. Afterward, I must go through detailed testing of the system to make sure the program and final installations function per my intended design.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
My job has never been boring or mundane as every day presents me with new challenges and learning opportunities.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
In my 25+ years working in my field, I have experienced many moments of self accomplishment. One of my greatest accomplishments was being challenged to install a safety system on a reactor within eight weeks to keep us in the business of selling a specific type of polyethylene. I put together a team, and together we determined the hazards and solutions for preventing those hazards. We were able to design and install a stand-alone safety system and associated field devices within the required time period. I was proud of how my whole team worked tirelessly together to accomplish that single goal. Because of our dedicated efforts, we are in the business of selling that type plastic to this day.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
I knew I was in a male dominated field when I was the only female in my electrical engineering classes. But I hit this realization fully when I started my job as an electrical engineer in the petrochemical industry, another male dominated field. Most of those men had a preconceived idea that women did not belong in the field of engineering or in a chemical plant; that we female engineers did not have the technical ability to get the job done. Consequently, many prized projects were assigned to my male engineer counterparts rather than me. So my biggest challenge was to have my technical competence and abilities recognized by not just the male colleagues I worked with but those I worked for as well. I learned this didn’t happen just through hard work and accomplishments but also through a willingness to participate and communicate as a team member, and to make any problem important, no matter how small it seemed. Through all of this, I am now not just recognized at being good at what I do, but am respected for being one of the best at what I do at the facility I work in.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I am very proud of my family. My husband, Frank, and I worked very hard at balancing work and family. We always made family dinners a number one priority every day. We have been married almost 30 years. He has a MS in Electrical Engineer and works in a robotics lab at NASA. We have two wonderful daughters and a son-in-law. Our oldest daughter, Stephanie, is a Biomedical Engineer who, like her dad, also works in the space industry. She is married to Justin who majored in Construction Science and now works on projects erecting tall buildings. Our youngest, Adrienne, is in her third year studying Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
Within the next year, I should be finished installing safety instrumented systems at the facility where I work. After that, I will start concentrating on projects to upgrade older control systems we have at this facility. I believe I will be working in the field of engineering for at least another 10 years before retiring.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My father, also an electrical engineer, had the greatest influence on my life choices. He was born in a log cabin just south of the Canadian border in Minnesota. His family lived off the land so money was sparse. By serving in the Air Force, my father was able to complete college under the G.I. bill. Even with that financial assistance, he still had to combine work with school. In addition, he was married and had 2 children, my older brother and me, before finishing college. Despite the odds, he was the first in his family to receive a college education. He spent the rest of his life teaching me the value of learning, as he never stopped teaching himself something new, whether it was learning to play the accordion, cook homemade pizzas, repair electronic equipment or whatever else he set his mind to.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
At the end of my freshman year, I started participation in the Co-operative Education program. I worked every other semester at NASA Johnson Space Center for a total of four semesters. I found this to be invaluable experience when deciding what field of Electrical Engineering to settle into after graduation. It actually helped with my interviews. I would encourage all female engineering students to spend at least one semester participating in an Internship or a Co-operative Education program to gain practical experience in their field of engineering. This will not only help in deciding what career path to follow but also build outside relationships with experienced engineers.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
Outside my work, I love to sew. The whole process is easy for me because sewing is a logical sequence. To be able to focus on the task of creating something, and the satisfaction of finishing it, is very relaxing for me. I used to sew my girl's clothes but now I do more crafts with my sewing. For the past few years, I have been introducing myself to embroidery sewing. My embroidery patterns are digitized, downloaded into my machines and stitched. I honestly find more patterns to stitch than I have time for. More recently, I have started a project to configure a software program to organize my designs so that I can find the design I want with ease. In the future, I hope to become more competent at digitizing my own designs.