Chemistry and Creativity: How Art Inspired Me to Become an Engineer

Christiane Lederer in a pipetting in a chemistry course.The one question that we all remember asking ourselves as teenagers is, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” We focus on surviving high school, but we must simultaneously make important decisions that will shape the rest of our lives. What do I want to do after high school? What will my college major be? Will that field of study get me closer to my dream job? What IS my dream job? My first choice was not chemical engineering and certainly not corrosion or instrumentation engineering. Here’s my story.

Growing up, my forte and my passion was art - drawing, painting, pottery and shaping papier-mâché. I lived in Austria, nestled between many small countries in Central Europe. Thus, my parents’ mantra for early education was to “learn languages.” So, that’s what I did. I learned English, Latin and French, and between all these language classes, I took chemistry. My teacher was amazing, demanding but passionate. Chemistry always made sense in my head and isn’t it fascinating to understand why only certain solvents work on oil paint? Incorporating chemistry into my art projects helped me understand the principles of polarity and perfect the trial and error process for testing solvents.

The intersection of art and chemistry is a niche discipline called art restoration or the refurbishing or renovation of art. As you can imagine, Central Europe has an abundancy of old art that requires a new coat of paint. When I was sixteen, I spent my summer interning at a restoration workshop. My mind was set. I wanted to become a restorer. 

The best restorers in the world come from a tiny academy called, Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Italy. Only twelve or thirteen of the brightest from 300-400 applicants pass the qualifying exam and walk through its prestigious doors. However, a world-renowned education is key in the very competitive field of restoration. You wouldn’t let just anyone restore the Mona Lisa, would you? If you're interested, here's article on the topic of restoration, Modern Chemistry Techniques save Ancient Art.

I spent my first semester at my home town’s University of Graz preparing for the qualifying exam. I was studying art history and earning mediocre grades-it was not a promising start. Meanwhile, I had also decided Christiane Lederer as a child playing with learn Italian. What a pity I picked the wrong romantic languages in high school! As I sat in Florence, between my Italian classes and another seven months of preparation for the entrance exam, the thought crossed my mind, “why am I pursuing a dream job that obviously wasn’t giving me much pleasure?” I thought long and hard about what originally drove me to pursue restoration. Looking at my grades, it clearly wasn't a love of historic art. So, what else fascinated me about art? What did I love about solvents and paint? It was chemistry.

I never attempted the qualifying exam. Instead, enrolled at the Montanuniversität Leoben, where I took my first lectures in chemistry, physics, mathematics and programming. I majored in Process and Environmental Engineering which is the equivalent of being a Chemical Engineering major with an Environmental Engineering minor in US colleges. My school’s strong mining and metallurgy focus meant material science and corrosion were woven into every lecture.

My master’s thesis project brought me into a refinery for the first time. It was a fascinating experience to see plants operating at such large capacities. I stayed because refining incorporates some of my favorite fields - organic chemistry and creative process engineering. Today, I work on developing creative customer solutions for corrosion; the application of these solutions is often used in refineries. 

My current role allows me to use my penchant for creative thinking in an technical (or engineering) environment. Life happens and career paths change. However, I believe that taking the time to dissect why you are truly passionate about something and why you excel at it will lead you to a career where you can be both fulfilled and successful. 

Did you take an unconventional path to become an engineer? Reply below to share your story and your advice for others.