Alumni Share Their Insight and Experience
CHRIS BIRDSALL, B.S., ChE ‘96 Vice President, Catalysts and Licensing, ExxonMobil
What do you remember about your time in ChE at UF? The lifelong relationships formed during my time at UF is what I remember the most. I had a tight-knit group of friends in my class; we shared a sense of camaraderie and willingness to help each other get through the challenging curriculum. I also enjoyed the bond with faculty and staff that were personally invested in our success. They pushed us, supported us, and gave us opportunities to learn and grow outside of the classroom. Even today, I enjoy catching up with old friends at alumni events and my trips back to campus.
From a professional standpoint, one specific item that stuck with me is Dr. Narayanan’s insistence that we understand the first principles before diving into pages of calculations or code. This approach of being grounded in the fundamentals is even more relevant today because we have so much more data at our fingertips, and it’s easy to get trapped in data trends without truly understanding the cause.
How did this time influence your career? I’ve had technical roles that heavily utilized the core ChE curriculum, and I’ve had roles in marketing, sales, and business management that were outside the traditional curriculum. While these roles have been very different, they all required strong competency in problem solving, collaboration, communication, and decision making. The UF experience prepares students by supplementing classroom lectures with opportunities to build these competencies. Activities like undergraduate research, the unit ops lab, IPPD, and AIChE events are all a part of developing students to be future leaders in any role or industry.
How have you overcome challenges in your career? Engineering is an incredibly rewarding career that involves solving big problems for society. Inevitably in a career there will be problems that seem overwhelming and unsolvable at first. In these cases, it is important to remember that the biggest problems can’t be solved alone and need the collective strengths of a broader team. Early in my career, I was part of team that scaled up a new-to-the-world product, where the catalyst and process design had never been demonstrated on a commercial scale. We struggled to make the product early on, and the process was prone to fouling, which caused multiple production outages. It wasn’t just one problem that was holding us back, and it took an interdisciplinary team of process engineers, catalyst chemists, material scientists, and field operators to identify the root cause and implement the needed fixes. No individual on the team could have solved it on their own. Since that experience, I’ve always believed in the power of inclusive teams in solving the toughest challenges.
What advice do you have for current students? I have two pieces of advice. First, enjoy your time at UF. In something as difficult as chemical engineering, it is easy to get caught up in making it through the next exam, and we don’t take time to enjoy and appreciate the experience. The time will go by fast, so enjoy the relationships and personal growth you will experience. My second piece of advice is to give back to your department after you graduate. The department relies on alumni funds to enhance the student experience, and you can make a difference in helping the next generation of UF ChE students.
NATHAN LEE, B.S., ChE ‘06 Mid-Atlantic/Southeast US Product Optimizer, ExxonMobil
What do you remember about your time in ChE at UF? For the first time in my school career I felt truly challenged. I was learning loads of information, like drinking water out of a fire hose. The friendships I made here are still an important part of my life. I regularly get together with friends from my class.
How did this time influence your career? Dr. Anderson was the chair when I was here, he came into my class and said, “You’re not here just to learn the facts and figures of chemical engineering, you’re here to learn how to think.” That statement has stuck with me.
How have you overcome challenges in your career? Overcoming challenges is life in industry. There are a lot of experts in the company I work for, so it’s about making the connections and getting the team together to solve problems.
What advice do you have for current students? Work hard while you are here. Get an internship, even if you think you don’t want to go into industry, do an internship with something related to your field. The experience is invaluable. Have fun while you’re here. Don’t be in a hurry to leave.
BENJAMIN SOUCY, B.S., ChE ‘10 Principal Engineer, PepsiCo Global Snacks R&D
What do you remember about your time in ChE at UF? The most impactful moments from my time in ChE were with the AIChE Student Chapter. AIChE provided me an opportunity to meet and network with other engineers, mentor younger students and help them grow, and develop my personal leadership style. AIChE was also a great outlet to apply the material I learned in classes, through projects like ChemE car and mentoring opportunities.
How did this time influence your career? An important aspect of my career has been built on collaboration, and AIChE presented many opportunities to do this through projects like ChemE Car, volunteering opportunities, and many other activities. I have taken this key principle of being able to do more together to all aspects of my career, whether it is in projects, recruiting, or mentoring, and truly believe that collaboration is key to efficient and effective problem solving.
How have you overcome challenges in your career? The most challenging moments I have had in my career have always revolved around having limited information to make a decision. It is a very useful skill to get comfortable with ambiguity, and it is critical in finding ways to quickly create scenarios, identify risks, and evaluate trade-offs to converge on the best possible solution.
What advice do you have for current students? The best advice I can give to current students is to seek out new and diverse experiences to broaden their views. Use this time and opportunity to find out what motivates and energizes you, identify your strengths and opportunity areas, and determine what path you want to take on your career.
STEVEN GARDNER, Ph.D., ChE ‘90 Principal R&D Engineer, Pall Corporation
What do you remember about your time in ChE at UF? I remember a great sense of purpose and pride upon hearing I’d been accepted into the UF ChE PhD program. I remember hearing the excellent news that I would be supported by a NASA grant working to develop low-temperature CO oxidation catalysts. This was a dream project for me! I recall the unconventional hours in the laboratory all in the spirit of discovery. That moment of discovery came approximately halfway through my tenure at UF when I synthesized a novel catalyst whose CO oxidation activity surpassed all others known thus far by NASA researchers. The rest is history as they say.
How did this time influence your career? As I began to spend more and more time pursuing basic research and publishing the corresponding data in peer-reviewed scientific journals, it occurred to me that a career in academia was the obvious choice for me. Shortly before graduating, I accepted a faculty position with Mississippi State University (MSU) in their Department of Chemical Engineering.
How have you overcome challenges in your career? I have actually faced many challenges in my career. I will speak to one of the earliest challenges while at MSU. I remember submitting a research proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and initially receiving average-to-poor reviews. At the time, this seemed quite devastating. I embraced the negative reviews and addressed the deficiencies to ultimately submit a revised proposal which was funded in full.
What advice do you have for current students? Adopt a mindset of data-driven analysis and avoid decisions based on subjective information.