Bittersweet of the Research in Chemical Engineering

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Studying at graduate level is a privilege and rewarding experience. It is a great opportunity to deepen our understanding on a specific field of interest, to broaden our horizons in life, and to expand our professional and social networks.

Having been learning about chemical engineering (since 2005) and involved in teaching (since 2009) and research (since 2012), I am grateful that all these experiences have taught me a lot of valuable lessons. It is a journey of transformation in terms of a personal, intellectual, and relational growth. Among the essential lessons is the awareness of the importance of humility and curiosity in our active pursuit of wisdom and truth in this vast, diverse, and rapidly growing world.

Nevertheless, in reality, working in chemical engineering field is not at all easy. Just as in other areas, there are always things we like and things we don’t like at work. With this regard, I would share here “5 things I dislike” and “5 things I like” from my perspective of doing research in this field so far.

The bitter part: 5 things I dislike about research in chemical engineering

1. Too much dependence on tools

It’s perhaps an open secret that chemical engineers have been relying very much on instrumentation (equipment, apparatus). With the advancement of technology, for instance in the area of spectroscopy, it’s now easier to do analytical measurements and/or characterizations of the material. However, without these devices, we can hardly “perform”. In comparison with arts, for instance, a singer can still sing and a dancer can still dance without any complex tools. They can “wow” the audience and impress or even impact the crowds in a matter of seconds. Chemical engineers or scientists can hardly make such instantaneous influence.

2. Exposure to chemicals

Any type of job has its own risks. In the chemical engineering works, exposure to chemicals is one of the most frequently encountered hazards especially for those who work in laboratory. For those who work in factory, the hazards may also be caused by equipment or machines (e.g. high voltage, heat, or pressure). We should take every experiment seriously and obey the safety regulations as strictly as possible – wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is a standard practice. There are four possible routes of exposure to chemicals: inhalation, skin (or eye) contact, ingestion, and injection, all of which might result in acute or chronic diseases. Having known this issue, I believe it is wise for any research institutes or companies to facilitate their employees with a regular health check up, at least annually. This benefit will help support their well-being and improve their performance, which at the end promote the sustainability of the institution itself.

3. Expensive process: time, money, and energy consuming

Do you know the prices of a few grams of chemicals or materials? Check from Sigma-Aldrich, a well known company for scientific research purposes. For instance, a gram of platinum wire costs about $600 now – the same amount of money can be used for paying basic health insurance in British Columbia for 16 months. Not to mention the costs for purchasing the cutting-edge instrumentation including the consumables, accessories, and maintenance fees. Often with the decent motive of creating a better future, ones may regard their research project as a good and profitable investment, so it’s worthwhile to spend a lot of time, money, and efforts for “the realization of a dream” – while in fact the research is going nowhere with only a little contribution after years. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, however research seems to be a never-ending journey and we might not necessarily enjoy the fruits of our labor after all. In research, we may build on what someone has built and in the future someone else will also build on what we have built  – there’s no such thing as a “perfect building”.

4. Waste production

Any forms of waste, such as glass, plastic, paper, chemical, etc. are produced every day through the research activities. Many of the consumables are for single use, for instance disposable syringe and the filter, transfer pipette tips, gloves, etc. Research in clean energy does not necessarily take place in a clean lab environment. It’s an ironic fact and therefore it’s important to implement the program of 3 R’s – reduce, reuse, and recycle as a routine for both on and off work. Despite its inevitability, the intensive waste production reminds us to be responsible in keeping our work space and environment as clean and tidy as possible. It is a little matter, but to me, an important indicator to the true quality of a chemical engineer. This is deceptively simple, but in fact not an easy task! Consider to clean your room or house first before your lab.

5. Gaps between theory and practice

Chemical engineering is studied based on theoretical and experimental approaches, however the gaps between them still often exist, especially when dealing with complex systems. This implies that not all the theories can be applied directly to the real world. Assumptions, simplifications, and/or generalizations are often used to help figure out the intricate problems. You might have noticed that your teachers/instructors used a simple problem example in the class to make (their) life easier, but then the problems given in the assignment/homework were way harder that you would need to make assumptions or simplifications to solve them. The classic example is the assumptions of ideal gas and steady state process or no material/energy losses in a reactor design. Most of the correlations are derived from experimental data and developed to represent the model that can predict the behavior of a system or process. Therefore, mathematically speaking, the gaps are possibly ascribed to some limitations in the approximations (of the correlation/function), because what is valid for a certain range of variables is not necessarily true for the different range of variables. Simply put, ideal situations do not usually match with real conditions.

The sweet part: 5 things I like about research in chemical engineering

For this part, let me go straightforward. The 5 things (reasons) are:

  1. It’s about energy (substantial for human’s life)
  2. The writing process (of creating story from factual data and information)
  3. A little progress matters and can be tracked every day
  4. The relevancy to life (of knowing the nature and the universe)
  5. It’s a rewarding and humbling experience (of knowing ourselves and others better)

Even though research feels like a never-ending process, but the joy of exploration with a sense of awe and wonder can be fulfilling.

Anyone wanna share from different perspectives from different areas?

Bittersweet of the Research in Chemical Engineering
Bittersweet of the Research in Chemical Engineering. (The background image is adapted from here)

Vancouver, February 19, 2019

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