A recent edition of “Chemical Engineering Progress” (a magazine from the American Institute for Chemical Engineers), has an interesting section on “Microbiome Engineering”, as illustrated on the cover. This subject nicely illustrates the diversity of directions that chemical engineers might find in a career path.
A microbiome is essentially a community of various types of microbes that live in an environment. Most of this section discusses the human gut microbiome, those trillions of bacteria that live in our bodies in the digestive tract. Apparently, of all the cells in a human body, about 57% of them are microbial (i.e. bacteria, yeast, etc.), and the rest are human cells.
The microbiome in the gut contains about 3,000 different microbial species. In recent years evidence has been mounting that these microbes play key roles in human nutrition, metabolic diseases (like diabetes), mood disorders, and immune system regulation and disorders. Recent information suggests that people with a poor gut microbiome may be more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and severe complications, for example. There is a lot still to be learned about what constitutes a “good” gut microbiome, and how to manipulate it to improve health.
Of particular interest to chemical engineers is the question of how to manufacture so-called “living biotherapeutic products” (LBPs) that could be implanted or swallowed to modify the gut microbiome and cure diseases. Most pharmaceuticals are either chemicals (single or mixtures) or inactivated (dead) parts of microbes or viruses (as used in vaccines). Producing a living product that can grow and thrive in the gut is a somewhat new challenge, especially if it needs to be a complex mixture of microbes.
Some of these engineering/manufacturing challenges would include issues like:
- How to shield the manufacturing process and product from oxygen, since many of these gut microbes may be negatively affected by exposure to oxygen (so-called obligate anaerobes).
- How to get the multiple species of microbes assembled into the LBP. Grow them all separately then mix? Some may grow better in the presence of other species, due to their complex nutritional requirements and symbiotic effects. Growing mixtures of microbes is much more difficult to control if they grow at different rates.
- How to ensure the final LBP product is consistently the same every time it’s produced. The growth history of microbes can affect their final performance and capabilities, even if they are genetically the same. What we call “process control” in chemical engineering will be crucial to consistency of products.
This area of Living Biotherapeutic Products of quite a new one, although it has certain similarities to existing industrial processes like the production of baker’s yeast or Bifidobacteria for dairy starter cultures. As the medical science evolves and promising new therapeutics are identified, chemical engineers will definitely be involved in translating these developments into manufacturing processes that meet future needs.
Sometimes I see people getting concerned about future prospects for chemical engineering careers, usually because of some downturn in the oil and gas markets. I guess we should never stop emphasizing that chemical engineering is much more than oil, gas, and petrochemicals! There is also food, pharmaceuticals, alternative energy, environment, safety, consumer products, plastics, minerals, metals, paper & fibers, etc….
Actually, the next 30 years is probably going to be a very exciting and technically challenging time to be a chemical engineer. The world needs people with the innovation skills to handle new materials and energy processes more than ever. Why is that? Here are a few quick thoughts…
An interesting story below about an engineer using his observations in water treatment to innovate and improve work-flow for lots of other companies. A chemical engineering education can lead in lots of different directions!
In 2014, freshly graduated UC Berkeley alum Ryan Chan was working as a chemical engineer at a water purification plant, when he realized that the company was constantly facing equipment downtime. The workers used a maintenance program that helped them track all the breakdowns, but there was a big problem with the software they were using that was slowing them down.
“Everything was desktop based, but the maintenance team, the people that were using it, never sat at a desk,” Chan says.
So Chan realized there had to be a smarter, mobile-first solution for all the blue collar workers across facilities. He wound up teaching himself how to code at night and on weekends, and developed the app while he worked as a chemical engineer, and later as an iOS developer.
In 2016, Chan launched UpKeep, an app developed for facility managers and maintenance workers that allows them to flag things that need repairs and run equipment audits across facilities.
Source: Meet The Chemical Engineer Who Accidentally Turned Into An Entrepreneur And Just Raised $36 Million For His App
For those applying to university for Fall 2020 admission, there is some homework you should have done, or at least started by now. Arguably, this is probably the most important homework that you have, even if no one has explicitly assigned it or told you to do it. Properly done, this homework will make success in university more likely. So what is this homework?
Some purple students at a Waterloo Engineering event (from engsoc.uwaterloo.ca)
Waterloo’s official colours are black, gold and white, but you might have noticed that Engineering’s brochures, websites and other material have a lot of purple. Sometimes I’ve been asked why that is, or why we are using Wilfrid Laurier or Western University‘s colours. The main explanation is that sometimes our students are purple, as illustrated in the picture, so why not use that as our theme colour? But there are purple engineering students at other universities like Queen’s, so there is more too it than just that. There is a bit of a long explanation that can be given in more detail as follows.
The latest university ranking scheme is one from Times Higher Education (THE) and their University Impact Rankings for 2019. This new ranking is based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and how well each university contributes towards meeting those goals. According to a news summary, Waterloo does particularly well on 4 of the goals, namely Partnership for the Goals, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Climate Action, and Reduced Inequalities.
Overall, Canadian universities score well in these sustainability rankings, with McMaster #2, UBC tied for #3, University of Montreal tied for #7, York #26, and Toronto #31. McGill comes in somewhere in the 101-200 range. I haven’t spent any time looking at the details yet, so I’m not sure what contributes to some of these rankings.
A lot of the “top” US universities didn’t participate in these rankings, so it’s hard to make many comparisons. The top 3 ranked US colleges in these rankings were U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at #24, Arizona State at #35, and U Maryland Baltimore County at #62. I’m aware of these places because they have strong STEM programs and research activities, but most Canadians probably aren’t aware of them. Perhaps next year more US colleges will participate.
In general, sustainable development is an important goal and increasingly a part of engineering education and practice. Engineers Canada, the body responsible for accreditation of engineering education in Canada (among other things), has a national guideline on sustainable development for professional engineers published in 2016. Various bits and pieces of this are already built into our curriculum for chemical engineers (and I assume in other disciplines), but there are further improvements we continue to work towards.
For further news details: https://uwaterloo.ca/news/news/university-waterloo-among-top-schools-world-social-and
When people hear the name Xerox, they may not immediately think of chemical process engineering. But chemical engineers play a critical role in the development of the advanced materials embedded within Xerox technologies.
Source: Celebrating our Chemical Engineers for #EngineersWeek | Xerox Newsroom
HR managers say that many job hunters are not writing cover letters anymore. Learn how you can standout if you use these proven cover letter writing formula.
Source: Formula For Writing An Attention-Grabbing Cover Letter
Comment: This is a pet peeve of mine, after having served on multiple hiring committees for faculty (and some staff) positions. I’m surprised at how many applicants don’t provide a cover letter to start off their extensive faculty C.V. and other documents. My practice is to generally ignore applications without a cover letter. Why? There are several reasons:
- I suspect that the lack of a cover letter implies that the applicant is not that serious about the position, or
- the applicant doesn’t actually meet the requested qualifications and doesn’t want to highlight that fact,
- If there is no cover letter, the applicant essentially expects me to sort through 20+ pages of C.V. and other stuff, and try to figure out how they fit into our advertised requirements for teaching and research experience. There are sometimes 100+ applicants and my time is quite valuable. Why not provide a cover letter where you can highlight your key features and experience and tell me how it may meet our needs? Then I can spend my time looking into the details and considering whether I agree. Job seekers should not expect hiring committees to do their work for them.
So if you’re truly interested in a job (especially a professional or higher level position), spend some time researching and analyzing the position and do a brief cover letter that highlights things of interest to the employer. It might not get you the job, but at least it’s more likely to pass the first stage of screening.
A typical Iron Ring.
As some people know, Canadian engineers usually choose to wear an Iron Ring, as illustrated in the picture, on the small finger of their “working” hand. Actually, it’s now usually stainless steel, and so about 72% iron, 18% chromium, 8% nickel and some other elements. It is originally a Canadian invention, so engineers in the U.S. and elsewhere are often unaware of it. What is its significance? Let’s start with what it is Not supposed to be about:
- It is not a reward from the university for finishing an engineering program.
- It is not a status symbol.
- It is not a sign of belonging to some prestigious or secret society.
- It is not an indicator of any competence or qualification.
So what is it all about? First, consider its history… Continue reading
As high school students return to class, here is some key advice for those planning to apply to university or college. I strongly suggest that when applying to a post-secondary program, it should be treated like applying for a job or career. There should be some significant self-reflection and “selling yourself” to the university. The self-reflection part is derived from Prof. Larry Smith’s book, which I have briefly reviewed before. It’s very important to know why you’re doing something before doing it. The “selling yourself” part builds on this, and can be illustrated with an example that is a composite of stuff we see for Engineering applications. For this example, let’s consider two hypothetical applicants to Mechanical Engineering, both with similar grades (say low 90’s) and similar other activities. Each applicant writes something in their Admission Information Form, along the lines of the following… Continue reading