The Village Raised an Engineer

Baby EngineerI never really considered a career outside of STEM. Ok, so there was a brief time where I aspired to be a renowned cartoonist like Scott Adams, but my sisters assured me that I wasn’t as funny as I had thought. I’m currently a chemical engineer working in a small manufacturing facility where I manage capital projects, program batch logic, and solve production problems. I consider my job to be equally awesome, frustrating and rewarding, so I know I made the right choice, but thinking back I don’t actually remember choosing a profession. This train of thought, of course, triggered a more in-depth analysis (read: I’m an engineer) and I’ve determined that my many mentors over the years noticed my strengths and guided me to this path without my ever realizing it. All of those people, regardless of the amount of time they spent, pointed me in this direction.

Halloween EngineerMy dad instigated many of these relationships at his work facility, where they made downhole drilling equipment. As far back as I remember he would bring me to work to introduce me to their engineers and technicians. He would encourage me to solder my projects in their workshop and show off their latest gadgets (what other 10 year old has used an oscilloscope?). I vividly remember using their silicon molding machine to make “ancient” Greek coins for a history presentation. Another time a technician set up a pressure failure test for my sisters and me to watch when dad had to deal with a problem. If I remember right, the problem might have been due to me discovering how to change his company screen saver password. Still, dad and his coworkers were so enthusiastic about sharing what they did. In middle school they even lent me the gear to go as an engineer for Halloween. I found out later they shared photos of it around the office. Nowadays, with an increased awareness of safety and liability, it must be more difficult to still make these opportunities happen. That hasn’t stopped dad though, since I’ve already seen pictures of my father with his 4 year old grandson at work.

Robotics TeamTeachers were another vital part of my STEM mentoring chain. My theater department head found a role for me as an electrician for my fine arts credits. This was likely because of my lack of aptitude in the arts, but it gave me hands-on experience with troubleshooting faulty lighting and electronics. Incidentally, working in the rigging also helped with my fear of heights, which has been extremely useful for climbing tanks and distillation towers. My physics teacher encouraged me to join and eventually coordinate our FIRST Robotics team, introducing me to a whole host of technical mentors and activities. I cannot give the FIRST program, or the companies that sponsor teams, enough credit for the excitement and interest it generated in STEM. The design and build sessions, competitions, and advocacy events with my team, #624 CRyptonite, are some of my best memories of high school. We would drive the robots around school and demonstrate them at local educational and charity events. I even sent a robot into the principal’s office when I was called in one afternoon, which the staff thankfully found amusing.

 carbon foilsMy English professors recommended fascinating nano-tech and other science fiction novels when I lamented reading yet another tedious historical fiction. While most of my class read The Awakening (I’ve since read the cliff notes), I analyzed the impact of technology trends in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. This spurred a continued interest in materials science, eventually leading to a research opportunity in nano-manufacturing methods during college. Even my chemistry teacher went outside of the curriculum to stimulate STEM, inviting a few of us to spend our study hall periods testing and perfecting new labs for her classes (and leading to an exciting story about why you shouldn’t silver-plate your teacher’s reading glasses). I’m grateful that these educators were able to find even small ways to incorporate science and engineering into other subjects and clubs, since it influenced how I view the world to such an extent. I hope parents and interest groups continue to encourage all educators, not just science and math teachers, to value STEM topics and methods.  

Danaca shows RobotThere were also family friends and acquaintances that mentored and supported my STEM tendencies. These might even be the most important relationships, as those folks didn’t have any responsibility for my future but still gave me some of their time or advice. Ten (fifteen?) years after graduating from high school, I can still name the mentors who guided our robotics design meetings. A volunteer from a local maintenance shop taught me how to use a drill press and ways to organize wiring for another of our robots. One of our team mentors even worked with his company to offer internships to college freshmen who had been in the robotics program. I spent two summers interning for them thanks to his support, where I learned about the world of upstream oil and gas production and how geologists search for reservoir prospects. They even had this surround screen room, called The Hive if I recall correctly, where we could view sonic and satellite images in near 3-D. After I turned 15, one of our family friends let me work part-time at his chromatography lab, where I found that analyzing and categorizing oil additives was infinitely more challenging than what most of my friends did at Blockbuster and Claire’s. Another of my parent’s friends, whom I still highly respect in the industry, gave me a practical applications book and some network contacts when I graduated. I actually used an article from that book to (accurately) answer an interview question on troubleshooting heat exchangers, and still refer to it often. Over and over I was given amazing opportunities and resources for my future career, and I aim to provide the same for the next generation.

ISA Mentors & PeersFinally, there are my current mentors and peers; the ones who help keep me active in the industry instead of another female retention statistic. There are a few strong, have-it-all women that I seek advice from on dual careers and family balance, since I am still learning how to thrive in a two-engineer household. Online, I follow and seek advice in technical forum communities like Emerson Exchange 365, where experts and moderators often volunteer their time to answer and organize industry-related questions. I also actively participate in the International Society of Automation’s mentor program, whose leaders encourage questions, continuous learning, and publication. The mentors and other mentees that I’ve discovered and written with over the last few years have been a strong influence on my decision to stay in a technical role rather than move to a management track. I don’t think I would have considered writing the articles or publishing the papers I have without their prompting and encouragement.

Danaca as Engineer & MentorDuring this reminiscing, I’ve been considering all the ways I should give back the same support I received. For instance, I could invite some of our operator’s older kids to stop by the office after school. At our plant you only have to be 12 years old to be onsite with an escort. Maybe they would enjoy programming a prototype for a 3-D printer, or watching a mechanic take apart a pump, or seeing polymer chopped into bits and packaged by robots. Or, since I read technical forums now and actively followed the robotics forums in high school, maybe it’s time to start answering questions myself.  And instead of just giving a technical scholarship to the local high school every year, this year I’ll request to attend the award ceremony or ask to include a copy of one of the books I rely on. My nieces and nephews will be as familiar with my job as I was with my father's.

I’ve had a lifetime of encouragement and support for my career in engineering, so it makes sense that I ended up here. If you look at all of the events together, though, it wasn’t just one type of person or kind of mentoring that worked. My supporters were male, female, international, online, face-to-face, academic, and social. Some spent hours teaching complex topics; others just gave me information or opportunities. I believe there are more chances to advocate and mentor than most people consider. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or planned. You just need to make a connection.