Carnegie Mellon University

Introduction to Chemical Engineering (06-100)

What do chemical engineers do? There are possibly as many answers as 
there are chemical engineers. We asked alumni from different years who 
went into different professions about their lives. In these videos the 
alumni from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon 
University have answered the following questions:

1. What is your name and when did you graduate?

2. What is your company and position?

3. What is your “day to day” work like?

4. What chemical engineering skills do you use, both engineering and 
professional skills?

5. What do you wish you knew when you were a freshman?

Alexa Beaver ('10) - BASF

SiWei Chang (PhD '08) - Proctor and Gamble

Brian Fredrickson ('98) - Conmed

Kathryn Kukla ('12) - McKinsey

Gregory Martin (PhD '77) - Exxon Mobil (Retired)

Scott Whalen ('81)

Sam Winslow (PhD '15)

After taking “Introduction to Chemical Engineering”, We asked students how have you come to define chemical engineering, and how do you see the aspects of chemical engineering fitting into your career goals? Here are some responses from freshmen:

Response 1 from fall 2017

Throughout this course, the question of what is chemical engineering frequently arose. With every unit covered in lecture, I began to understand the multifaceted field that is chemical engineering. As of now, I define it as a field of study that involves the mass production, transformation, and transportation of chemicals and materials. We began the course with learning about batch and continuous processes in order to understand mass balances and production. We then learned about distillation and combustion to understand the transformation of products. Lastly, we briefly covered topics in courses that chemical engineering majors will eventually take such as fluid transport and heat and mass transport. This unit allowed me to understand the transportation of chemicals and materials aspect of the field.  

I am interested in pursuing a career in medicine or related to the medical field. If I were to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, understanding the processes covered in class involved in manufacturing will be necessary. In a few years, as a senior chemical engineering major, I will take courses about Chemical Process Systems Design and optimization of reactors. These courses will aid me in a career at a pharmaceutical company to maximize productivity and product quality while minimizing costs. Also, if I were to pursue a career in pharmacy, many of the pre-pharmacy courses such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physics overlap with the chemical engineering track. Overall, I believe that chemical engineering will aid me in whichever field I choose to work in because it provides a solid foundation in the sciences and requires creativity in problem solving.


Response 2 from fall 2017

           The study of chemical engineering very often described by professors and counselors as chemistry in flow. This is about as basic of an explanation someone can give but it’s pretty accurate. This is usually helps make people understand that there is definitely the physics involved in chem E and very beautifully paints the picture of a mass balance in people’s minds. (If they know what that is yet) To me, chemical engineering can be defined as “industry chemistry” or “production line chemistry” or “chemistry for making tons of stuff”, because these definitions distinguish the difference between lab chemists who work with beakers from chemical engineers who work with barrels. I see chemical engineers as the people who get the blueprints from the research departments of their companies of a brand new **insert product that is made using chemistry** and are tasked with designing systems that can make a million tons of that product at a profit to be shipped out to places that use said chemical (and also maybe not destroy the environment while doing it). As for what we’ve learned in this class, I see it as the tip of the ice berg for all of the more sophisticated things I will need to know to be a good chemical engineer. To design/improve or manage processes for producing products in mass I’ll have to understand every variable of said process. Not just how mass travels and changes throughout the system, but how it flows, at what temperature, where the waste goes etc. To understand these things to the degree it takes to apply it in industry I need to know more about the basics of chemistry and mass balancing. I feel like this course has provided me with the groundwork to build my knowledge to the point where I will be able to succeed in whatever career I find.


Response 3 from fall 2017

           I thought I had a pretty good idea of what chemical engineering was at the start of the semester, but in hindsight I was pretty off. I didn’t expect the emphasis on systems and operations and balances, and the lack of emphasis on pure chemistry. I’m not unhappy with that at all—in fact, I prefer that “chemE” expands so extremely upon chemistry because plain chemistry and chemE have vastly different applications. Where a chemistry major may intend to continue school past their undergrad and continue to settle in academia, an engineering major has a multitude of different tracks open to them because the discipline itself isn’t harshly defined. The point of engineering, chemical or otherwise, is to construct systems or operations that serve people efficiently using specialized knowledge. The distinctions for each engineering field come from what that background knowledge is; chemical engineering deals with chemical processes in the real world.

           I chose chemical engineering because I wanted to study biomedical engineering, but CMU only offers that as a dual degree program so I chose to pair it with chemical engineering. I soon found out that the scope of chemE far beyond the scope of the textbook chemistry that we learn in 09-105. ChemE involves problem solving and real world applications. It involves making judgement calls and prioritizing some data/information over others, not out of laziness or ignorance, but because it pertains more greatly to the issue at hand. For example, even though a calculated number may have a certain number of significant figures, we don’t always need to worry about the most accurate values if the end product is dependent on fewer significant figures. We don’t have to consider each and every aspect of a problem to come to a solution, because efficiency and satisfaction are the priorities—extreme accuracy is encouraged, but not always entirely necessary. Essentially, theoretical sciences state the basic laws and principles that our understanding is founded upon, but engineering is how we turn that theoretical information into something tangible.

           It’s worthwhile to mention that I’m interested in biomedical engineering because of the breadth of the subject, and I’ve found that chemical engineering is extremely similar in that way. There is a large emphasis on systems and balances, but there is a satisfying range of physics, chemistry, biology, and even logic, that make it dynamic enough to suit my interests. I like to think that I’m not nailed into any one line of work or any one life plan due to my major—I could continue in academia, or I could find a corporate job, or I could someday conduct research. I could even find a job that uses very little of my major and would require plenty of on-the-job learning, but I’d know that my education prepared me to tackle a situation like that because I’d know how to learn in addition to knowing the academic information that comes with my education. Personally, I’d like to continue into research, and I definitely see myself going through with it. I also like that this major grants me the freedom to reevaluate that plan in 4 years to ensure that it is the right path for me because I think that anyone that’s progressing into such a consuming career should establish checkpoints in their lifetime to make sure that what they’re doing is right for them.


Response 4 from fall 2017

I have learned this semester that Chemical Engineering is the development and analytics of chemical processes designed to efficiently and safely create products in large scale. Chemical Engineers are responsible for creating products over a vast spectrum, from anything to plexiglass to paint or from shampoos to rubber. Because so many consumer products are created through chemical processes, Chemical Engineering is always in high demand.

           Chemical Engineers have the knowledge and ability to create products that people want or need. This aspect of Chemical Engineering will fit into my career goals because I would like to use my talents and abilities to provide people with what they need. More specifically, treatments to serious medical illnesses. I am interested in entering the medical side of Chemical Engineering because a close friend of mine while growing up died to Leukemia at age 14. And because I know countless of the world’s smartest scientists are working on a cure for cancer, and may develop a sufficient treatment by the time I graduate, I would like to help deliver a cost-effective way of creating their solutions so that it can be easily accessible to any patient in need.

           I can see the problem-solving skills of this course, whether gained from solving mass balances or researching an effective lip balm, to guide me through the rest of my education, as well as my professional career. These skills, along with those I will gain in my Biomedical Engineering courses, will help me achieve my career goals and to help cancer patients in need. Furthermore, a career goal, as well as a life goal, is to be happy with the work that I will do. I think Chemical Engineering will help me achieve happiness because I will need to problem solve and communicate with others, while keeping in touch with my altruistic side, all actions or attributes which I love.


Response 5 from fall 2017

           Chemical engineering is application of mathematics and various fields of science to perform chemical processes. Chemical processes are commonly used in food production, transportation of chemicals, and oil refining. From lecture, I have come to understand that chemical engineering has many broad applications; as a result, chemical engineers work in a broad spectrum of fields, from energy to pharmaceuticals. In class, we studied measurement of pressure, mass balances, combustion, and laws of pressure, which gave us an overview of what knowledge chemical engineers apply to their jobs. We were also introduced to our future coursework, which includes thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer, and process control.

           I have come to define chemical engineering as a major with lots of possibilities. Prior to attending college, I had the misconception that the majority of chemical engineering majors would end up working for oil companies; however, upon listening to alumni with degrees and jobs in chemical engineering as well as visitors from companies such as Procter & Gamble, I have discovered that chemical engineers are also greatly involved in the mass production of household items such as toothpaste and common medications. When looking through the companies listed under chemical engineering in the Technical Opportunities Conference pamphlet, I realized that many types of companies were interested in hiring chemical engineers due to the wide scope of their studies. My perspective of career options for chemical engineers changed, for I came across chemical engineers with many different careers and research studies.

           Currently, I don’t have a very specific career goals, but I would like to find a career based off of the classes and activities I currently enjoy at Carnegie Mellon University, as wells as future courses that I find myself to show great interest in. The aspects I have learned have given me a better understanding of what chemical engineers do and what the next three years of college will look like for a chemical engineering major, schedule wise. I believe the aspects I will learn will prepare me to confidently apply for internships and jobs and allow me to be a useful member of a company or research team. In addition, I believe my future coursework will assist me, through introducing me to more specific subjects within chemical engineering or interesting intersections between other fields, such as material science and biomedical engineering, and chemical engineering, in pinpointing exactly what it is I want to do for a career.


Response 6 from fall 2017

Prior to taking the Introduction to Chemical Engineering course, I thought that chemical engineering was just chemistry knowledge applied to real life problems and that such engineers designed, developed, and improved chemical processes and systems. However, I have come to realize that there is much more involved that I did not previously know. I can now see more clearly how the lessons I learned and the skills I developed fit into my career goals

Clearly, chemical engineering is an interdisciplinary field, but actually learning several of the chemical engineering concepts this semester was what has allowed me to see more exact ways it encompasses multiple disciplines. The more obvious connections are those to other STEM fields, but I now better understand how much more interdisciplinary it is through the several overlaps between chemical engineering, environmental engineering and sustainability. For example, when looking at mass balances, I learned that recycle streams are convenient for when a material is really expensive or when a byproduct is toxic. I also learned that if too much excess air is supplied to a combustion system, nitrogen compounds can react to form NOx gases, like nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas. Since I am interested in environmental studies, I can see how I could focus more on the environmental portions of chemical engineering in the future.

Moreover, this class has helped me attain a better view of what my strengths and weaknesses are through group interactions. For instance, I was involved in the writing and editing portions of the lab reports and final project. I realized that I enjoy writing and that it is one of my strengths, so I think writing might become a large portion of my future career. These assignments also further strengthened my knowledge of how important communication skills are. I see the interdisciplinary nature of chemical engineering to be composed of not only science and math studies, but also other social skills that anyone can apply in any problem in one’s daily life.

Through the course of this class, I also realized that chemical engineering is more involved in production processes of different kinds of goods than what I previously thought. Initially, I was overwhelmed by how many variables there were to consider simultaneously in mass balances problems and was unsure of how to approach these problems. However, after much practice, I eventually began enjoying the time I spent honing my critical thinking skills with such problems and working out different solutions to them. In the future, I also hope to work more closely with these kinds of problems.

Over the course of this semester, I became aware of how majoring in chemical engineering will not narrow my future opportunities; instead, having a strong foundation in this field will allow me to branch off into many different career paths and go through a wide range of experiences. Now that I have a more educated understanding of chemical engineering, I feel more confident in continuing to pursue my education in this field.