One interesting topic I come across is “how will our pandemic experience influence technology and design in the coming years“, even after the coronavirus is long gone (preferably) or at least under control? There is a growing awareness that there are things we could be doing better to minimize infection transmission in various commercial and institutional settings, in addition to hospitals where this has been an obvious concern. Even if the coronavirus is completely defeated, reducing the spread of more routine “germs” like colds and influenza or gastrointestinal “bugs” would make good business sense overall, as those account for lost productivity and suffering too. Maybe it’s time we pay more attention to infection prevention in general, beyond just hand washing.
With this interest in mind, I recently agreed to participate on an Advisory Board with a local firm, fabrik architects inc., to provide input on design, materials, and devices that can be used in projects to address the current pandemic and possibly other infection transmission concerns. The Advisory Board members include architects, engineers, and epidemiologists. I look forward to contributing whatever expertise and ideas I have on things like UV disinfection and antimicrobial materials, in what is sometimes called “engineered infection prevention“. It is one way that academics can help to translate current research into new best practices.
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.
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.
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.
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.