It may sound odd, but one of the hardest things about my job at the moment is answering a simple question—Where do you live?
In our life, as it stands currently, there is a huge distinction between this question and ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Where is home?’ The difference may seem minute—and normally is.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Yalu River Bridge - destroyed during the Korean war - looking over empty piers to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)"][/caption]
It isn’t that this is such a hard question to answer, but it is challenging to give an accurate summary before you get the look given to someone at the coffee machine that gives a detailed medical history when asked “How's it going?”
Since I signed on for my current job, I have struggled to answer this question more than a few times, so here is an attempt to answer it and showcase one example of how far a Chemical Engineering degree can take you.
The Business Card vs. The Actual Job
My business card states: Technical Advisor. Appropriately vague I think. I work for UOP, which—as our website states—has been delivering cutting-edge technology to the petroleum refining, gas processing, petrochemical, and major manufacturing industries for over 90 years.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Delicious lunch in Dandong - no menu, selected from bins of seafood in the back of the restaurant"][/caption]
I work in Field Operating Services, which is the group that provides support in the field which can include any or all of: oversight of units under construction, loading of catalysts or adsorbents, startup, operations, revamping, or troubleshooting. This requires a trained and experienced group of highly mobile people. Depending on the process and nature of the project each assignment can last from 2 weeks to over a year (my typical stay is a few months).
Professionally, this provides a lot of experience in a short time frame. Essentially, every few months I get a new job with a new company and work in a new facility. A unit engineer working in the same process for 10 years might see one unit and one turnaround, while I have seen 3 this year. I see how different companies operate in different countries, new units, old units, private, government, big, small. I could be doing the same process and still have a lot of variety. It is also challenging working half way across the world from your managers and process experts.
There is support, but many of the resources are half a day away so you need to able to absorb a lot of information quickly and think on your feet. It is amazing to talk to people that did this job before email was used—or even before international phone calls were easily accessible for some of the older folks. Then you really needed to know your stuff.
Personal Benefits of The Job
Personally, I get to see a lot of the world that I never thought I would see. I am at my sixth location in the last 12 months—Taiwan, India, Japan, Spain, Taiwan again, and now Liaoyang, China. I love to travel and this job seemed like a good fit to feed that desire—but I never get to choose the location.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="View of Main Street in Ronda, Spain"][/caption]
And it is almost always last minute. I usually have to be on a plane within a week (less if I don’t need a visa) of hearing where I have been assigned. So forget about planning that dream vacation to the exclusive resort requiring booking months in advance. But I have been to amazing places that I would never have thought I wanted to see. There is also something to be said of spontaneous travel. With a schedule that changes frequently and drastically, I have fully embraced ‘Carpe Diem’.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Locals at a spring festival on Manabe Island, Japan"][/caption]
I have seen unique local festivals that you don’t hear about on any travel channel, eaten foods I have never heard of (some I still don’t know what they were). I've met many fascinating people.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="An early spring snow dusts the canal in Kurashiki, Japan"][/caption]
On Friday afternoon sticking your finger at a map to choose where you are going to visit for the weekend can be a tremendously educating and liberating adventure. Without any time to develop strict timelines or form expectations you are truly free to explore a foreign land. Also, change can be like anything else that you do on a regular basis—you get better at it with practice. This isn’t always good times and sunshine. What job is? But taking a long view of things, the average has been in the positive range so far.
So Back to the Question.
We do a lot of hotel living. Sometimes there are apartments or company guesthouses. The accommodations can be Spartan or
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Krishna's Butterball in Chennai, India"][/caption]
luxurious. You take what is available and make the best of it. We have gotten pretty good at finding the best local food and making meals with nothing more that an electric tea kettle. Trying to pack any of the belongings you might want for the next year under the airline weight limit (For anyone that saw ‘Up In The Air’ – What is in your backpack?) can be an interesting look into your personality and priorities. Extreme minimalism can be liberating. Like everything else, there are pros and cons—and electronics have made this much easier.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Hi Res Trucking"][/caption]
As I mentioned, home is currently Liaoyang, China, in the northeast between Russia and North Korea, somewhat near the coast. Fall is here with—what I have been promised is going to be—a cold winter not far behind. Stands coal-fire roasting nuts and potatoes are becoming more common.
We (that’s right, I married a wonderful woman crazy enough to take this show on the road with a 1-year-old son) have been here for a few weeks, setting up the basics. You develop a priority list quickly. Grocery store, local cuisine (including finding our new favorite street vendor), attractions to see, intra-city, then intercity transportation. Enjoying the moment, because we don’t know where we will be in the next.
Here is a small selection of photos from the year 2010:
The AIChE Foundation raises funds to support projects and activities that further the Institute's mission and enable the profession of chemical engineering to have a greater impact on the world. Donations small and large make a difference.
Debbie Sterling, the twenty-six year old founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, loves engineering. But at Stanford, where she spent four years training to be an engineer, she was one of only 181 women and felt vastly outnumbered by over 500 men. It didn't take an anthropologist to see that this imbalance was purely cultural. So soon after graduation, she decided to take her finely honed design skills and even those numbers out.
As Debbie explains in her Kickstarter video (which netted her new company enough money to begin production), she quickly realized that you had to start with an early intervention. Girls, she says, begin showing less interest in science, math, and engineering when they are as young as eight.
In response, she came up with GoldieBlox, which is designed for girls from 4 to 9 years old. It's a construction set with a companion book; and as girls read about what Goldie, a spunky female engineer, is building, they build it themselves.
GoldieBlox is so successful that it can be found in the construction set section at more than 600 Toys 'R' Us locations and is featured in a viral video that's been seen over 4 million times on the Internet. Now, that stereotypical, pink-aisle princess comfortably wears a tool belt.
Fancy Yourself a Writer? We're looking for authors for The Reactor and contributors of video, humor, book reviews, challenges/brain teasers, and polls for ChEnected pages. You'll be credited in the post. Find out more at Chenected.aiche.org/contribute