Why Study Chemical Engineering? A Q&A with Reg Tomkins

Reg Tomkins, Interim Chair of Chemical Engineering

Reginald Tomkins loves to talk about chemical engineering.  At NJIT, he is interim chairman of the chemical engineering department. But he is also a professor of chemical engineering.  His love for the field is infectious, and he’s been honored for his impassioned teaching. He’s also written about how to teach, or to introduce the fundamentals of chemical engineering, to high school students. He has taught here for 30 years and many of his students have gone on to establish satisfying careers. In this interview, Tomkins discusses chemical engineering: what the field is like today, how it is taught at NJIT, and what kind of careers await students who major in chemical engineering.   

I understand you often talk to high school students about chemical engineering. I imagine that since chemical engineering is not taught in high school, they don’t know much about it?

When I talk to high school students, I ask them what it is they think chemical engineers do. My question is usually met with silence. Only if they have an uncle or a family member who is a chemical engineer will they know something about the job. Many young people want to work at jobs they see on television or in films. There have been shows about lawyers and doctors, and movies about astronauts. But how many astronauts does our society need? Not many. But we need hundreds of thousands of chemical engineers, who contribute to our society in so many ways. Most high school students have little clue as to what chemical engineering is. And that’s a shame, really, because it’s a career that can be creative and fulfilling and the work of a chemical engineer is critical to the functioning of our economy.

What kind of high school students should consider majoring in chemical engineering in college?

Students who are good in chemistry and math and like both subjects should consider it.  You need an interest in chemistry; you will work a lot with chemicals. And nowadays, it helps to have some interest in molecular biology – DNA, the genetic code. And because they work in teams and must communicate well, those science students who like to talk and write will also do well as chemical engineers. I recently spoke to a group of incoming students at NJIT, some of whom are chemical engineering majors. I asked them why they’ve selected chemical engineering. Invariably they say it’s because they had a good chemistry teacher and that they like math.  All chemical engineering courses have math, calculus and even higher-level math. Sometimes they say “my dad or an uncle or a friend of the family is an engineer.” But having a good teacher is critical. So if any high school students are reading this, I hope you can find a great chemistry teacher.

What is the difference between a chemist and a chemical engineer?

Chemical engineers scale up a process that a chemist has developed on a very small scale. A chemist working for the drug company, for instance, works in a lab to develop a new drug. But the drug is on a small scale, in micro-grams. After the drug has been tested and once the company decides to go ahead and make the drug, on a large scale, that’s where the chemical engineer comes in.

And then what happens?

At this stage, chemical engineers experiment and, if you will, play around and try out different things. In a pilot plant, the chemical engineer does experiments to see if and how the drug can be mass produced. Will the mass production work under various pressures and temperatures? They also look at the yield of the drug. They experiment with different catalysts until they come up with the conditions that give the drug a good yield -- one that is economically feasible.

Their college education teaches them a chemical engineer how to do all this?

Indeed. They use the knowledge they learned in college – such as heat transfer, mass transfer, fluid flow – all areas that don’t concern the chemist. The chemist’s tools are small: test tubes and beakers, glass, small equipment. Another example of a new product and how it is developed by engineers is striped toothpaste. Remember when that kind of toothpaste first came out. A chemist first developed the striped toothpaste, but just a small batch of it. But how do you make enormous batches of it for mass production? And how do you do that well and economically? That’s the job of the chemical engineer.

What about high school students who love computers but also have an interest in engineering? Has chemical engineering incorporated the use of computers?

Yes. The chemical engineering profession needs graduates with computer skills. The processes in chemical engineering plants have increasingly become automated, and what is known as process control, where computers are programmed to run the plant, is an integral part of the industry. Modern chemical engineering involves extensive use of computers for process simulation and design, for product characterization and for process control. So students who like math and chemistry and physics as well as computer science would do well to major in chemical engineering. 

What are the main industries in which chemical engineers work?

They work in many, but the major industries they work in include the pharmaceutical industry, where they work on the large scale manufacture of drugs; the new materials industry, where they develop, again on large scale, new products such as a stronger tennis racket (titanium), a shampoo that leaves your hair cleaner and shinier; athletic clothing that absorbs sweat; or a carbon airplane that is lighter and greener than its predecessors.  Another field that is growing and of interest to the new generation of students is the alternative energy industry, where chemical engineers develop alternative fuels, solar power, bio-fuels, etc.  

Anything that is manufactured is going to require the expertise of a chemical engineer -- may be it potato chips, gasoline, polyesters or plastic. The phone on your desk, as well as its extension cord, is both coated in plastic. The computer on your desk, as well as perhaps the desk itself, possesses plastics, so chemical engineers worked on them as well. Sometimes high school students aren’t aware of all this good work that is done by chemical engineers.

How do you teach chemical engineering at NJIT? What classes, for instance, do chemical engineering majors take?

They take classes such as heat transfer and mass transfer. Heat transfer is the passage of thermal energy from a hot fluid or object to a cold one.  Mass transfer is the phrase commonly used by engineers to describe physical processes that involve the movement of atoms and molecules within physical systems. They also take kinetic and reactor design, which teaches them how to use chemical reactors to solve mass and energy balances. Later, when they are seniors, they take a capstone course that asks them to design a complete chemical process, one that is safe, environmentally benign, and economically feasible. We also help our students get summer internships and co-op jobs, so that can work in the different fields and see which one they like best. Our students also do research and hands on projects with our professors. And many of our students have won research awards in nationwide competitions. We also invite chemical engineers in to talk about their work. 

Do chemical engineers work in teams?

All the time, yes. They work in teams in industry and so we have them do a lot of team projects in their classes. Chemical engineering, remember, has do to with the large scale production of products. And that requires team work.  You must like working on teams to be a good chemical engineering, so it helps to be personable. And if you have leadership skills, great; that quality will help you move up to be a manager. 

Do chemical engineers move into management positions?

Since chemical engineers are taught to understand how an entire industrial process or how an entire plant works, they are often promoted to managers. They quickly ascend the corporate ladder. Five or six years out of college, the majority of chemical engineers are managers. Executives and CEO’s often have engineering backgrounds. If you look at the leaders of energy companies and pharmaceutical companies, and even finance companies these days, many of them will have engineering backgrounds. And after some years of work, chemical engineers become plant managers, who are responsible for the whole plant, including its safety and environmental regulations.  After that, chemical engineers become vice presidents of operations for big firms, such as pharmaceutical companies.

What are some other career paths that chemical engineers take?

Some chemical engineers get PhDs and teach college or work as research engineers for large companies such as Merck. They also work as directors of research and development, a great job for those who are creative. But some chemical engineers go to law school, especially environmental or patent law.  Some also go to medical school, and, since the body is a kind of chemical factory, they are well prepared for medical school. Others go to Wall Street and the financial sector. Chemical engineers are taught modeling and prediction studies. Having learned that, however, you can apply that knowledge to Wall Street. 

Are chemical engineers well paid?

Yes, indeed. You can get a chemical engineering degree in four years and immediately start working and make a very good salary. Chemical engineers are better paid than chemists, who these days must also have advanced degrees. I know college students today want to make high salaries. This year, our graduating students have starting salaries of around $63,000. And some were offered a signing bonus of $10,000. So if you have some of the characteristics I mentioned above, you might consider majoring in chemical engineering. In the end, it can lead to creative and fulfilling career -- one that is well paying and at the same time helps our society not only function but flourish. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)