I managed the engineering, construction, and start-up of engineering projects on a floating offshore oil platform. This had a lot to do with chemistry! Oil comes out of the ground as a mixture of all different types of hydrocarbons as well as water and other chemicals. It doesn’t make sense to pipe or ship a bunch of oily water to shore, so the platform does enough processing to separate the oil, gas, and water. We made sure that oil and gas are good enough that the refineries downstream will be able to turn them into the products we actually use. Even more importantly, we made sure that the water was clean enough to be mixed with seawater and wouldn’t hurt the environment around the platform. If we spilled even a teaspoon of oil (and we were making millions of gallons of water a day), we reported it to the proper authorities.
On the job: on a floating offshore oil platform
My best project was a piece of equipment that helped the energy generators of the platform run more effectively. We were lucky enough that the natural gas we separated from our oil was good enough that we could use it to generate energy, but over time the quality had been degrading. We had some oil creeping into our gas content. Ultimately, this was similar to what would happen if you were to put premium fuel into a regular car. The engines were not built to withstand the resulting combustion and were getting worn down over time! I added some equipment that cooled the gas down as cold as −20∘Fminus, 20, space, degree, F. At this temperature, the oil part became a liquid really quickly and we were able to get it out of the gas. No floating platform had ever had a piece of equipment like this before, so it was a really interesting opportunity!
What did you study, and how did you become interested in chemistry-related topics?
As an undergraduate and graduate student, I was really interested in fluid dynamics because I was a competitive swimmer and I also really love boats. I liked fluids courses because it felt like I had an intuition for what was going on in the water, but I wasn’t so interested in chemical reactions. Here is a picture of me swimming with a robot that I built when I was a sophomore at MIT:
Swimming with the robot I built!
That all changed when I went to work for an oil company. When you are working, you have to keep in mind all of the company’s goals in order to do the best work you can do and in order to gain responsibility in the company. Oil companies are there to get oil out of the ground, so I learned to care about it. A lot of the types of problems I had liked when I was studying fluid dynamics, such as “what is the pressure in this pipe? And how fast is the fluid moving?” as well as questions about the physical properties of the fluid, become even more interesting when you have a mixture rather than a single substance. Working lives are long and having new challenges is important for keeping motivated and continuing to grow, so I followed the interesting problems and ended up in the job I described above.
What do you do for fun in your spare time?
I really like staying active! If I’m not exercising or getting out in the world, I find that I get mentally blocked and I can’t think straight or make sense of new problems. Plus, I like the feeling of accomplishing something I didn’t think I could do. For example, this summer I took some time off of work to go on my dream trip: a bicycle vacation through Italy. Over the course of 5 weeks, I biked from Venice to Sicily all on my own! Here is a picture of me at the end:
After biking from Venice to Sicily!
What's your one piece of advice for people interested in chemistry?
For people who are very early on, I think that a lot of people get intimidated early on by chemistry because it has a lot of unfamiliar words with very precise meaning and there is a lot of memorization surrounding things like the element names and properties. It’s easy to feel like “I’m just not GOOD at this.” But you shouldn’t give in to these sorts of feelings. Once you get past that initial memory barrier, it becomes more interesting because you start to learn about the way different things interact and how that affects the world we live in, it gets really cool!
For people who are a little more advanced, I have some more specific advice. There can be an access issue with chemicals and getting the chance to use them, where some people didn’t grow up in an environment where they had the resources to experiment and learn as kids. But, almost every high school has a chemistry class, you should see if you can assist the chemistry teacher by preparing solutions and other materials for classes. In college, laboratories always need people to help perform support work. I paid for my room and board freshman year working in a lab where I mixed solutions, cleaned laboratory equipment, and just generally helped free up space so that the grad students could do their work. I learned a TON about how science is done by helping out!