This week we got a chance to have a conversation with an experience chemical engineer, Matt Anderson. He is an alumni of Brigham Young University (Provo, UT) with a BSc.Eng in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Computer Science from 2017 in United States. He is currently pursuing his MSc in Computer Science with an emphasis in Machine Learning from Georgia Tech.
He started his career as an Associate Process Engineer at Valero Wilmington Refinery, and is currently working as a Process Engineer within the same company. Apart from his current job, he has previously worked at different roles including a Research Assistant at the Design Institute for Physical Properties (DIPPR) and for a Professor & PhD Student on control of chemical plants.
Therefore, he has robust expertise within Chemical Engineering, both theoretical and practical. Not only chemical engineering, but he has also expanded his knowledge circle by having in-depth understanding of computer science, and it is something he is also pursuing a MSc in. These qualities and skills make him an experienced and attractive chemical engineer to both the industries and future graduates for guidance. Therefore, we were lucky to have a conversation with him in order to get some industrial insights and thoughts on how the future graduates can prepare for their future.
How was the workload of your degree?
I found the workload to be very challenging. I needed to improve my time management during my college years. I remember having days with every minute scheduled out from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM between class, homework, studying, and a research job. I spent most time on assignments from classes. I recall having 15-20 hours of assignments per week per class.
Many people mistake Chemical Engineering for Chemistry, so was there a lot of chemistry in your curriculum?
15 credit hours were exclusively chemistry. Chemical Engineers were required to take two semesters of General College Chemistry, two semesters of Organic Chemistry, and one semester of Physical Chemistry.
ChemE is a tough degree, so in your experience, what topics did you find the most difficult?
I found Physical Chemistry to be the single most difficult class. Fluid dynamics was difficult, but an enjoyable difficult because the concepts all felt extremely applicable to problems I would face as a practicing engineer.
What line did you choose to focus during your degree?
The research I choose to participate in was in scheduling and process control. I also choose to take an elective in reservoir engineering. I minored in Computer Science, and I have always been interested in the intersection of programming and Chemical Engineering. There are a lot of opportunities to combine big-picture scheduling of refineries/chemical plants with control.
Did you get your degree from your home country or did you go abroad?
I got my degree from my home country (United States). After my first year of college, I served a 2-year volunteer mission to Brazil representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I returned to school and finished my degree after getting back from Brazil.
Did you have student jobs during or between your education? What did do you there?
I had two different research jobs. I typically did not work more than 15 hours per week. The first job, which I worked for about two years was as a research assistant for the Design Institute for Physical Properties (DIPPR). The second was for a professor and PhD student who were working on scheduling and control of chemical plants. The position at DIPPR helped because as part of my job I built a few useful Excel tools in VBA. I received my first internship in part because the company wanted someone who had some ability to work in VBA to update some of their existing Excel Macros.
What was your first job after graduation and how did you get it?
My first job was Associate Process Engineer at the Valero Wilmington Refinery. I was promoted to Process Engineer after two years. I got it after completing two internships. Far and away the most common hiring path for the large oil & gas companies in the US is to hire from their intern pools. Obtaining an internship is critical if you want to work for a Downstream Oil & Gas company in the US.
What industry are you currently working in and in what role?
I work in an oil refinery, which is part of the broader Downstream Oil & Gas. My official title is "Process Engineer" at the company Valero Energy Corporation.
What is your daily work routine like?
There is a video that was produced by Valero which shows what a "Day in the Life" is like for me as a process engineer. Watching the video is probably more interesting than reading my description!
What are the typical tasks which you have to deal with?
Each process engineer is assigned to a group of operating units called a complex. Typically, the process engineer provides guidance on optimal temperatures, pressures...etc that Operations can implement. Monitoring catalyst health is very important for units that have reactors with catalyst. Reviewing lab samples to detect changes in Unit operation and understanding why the changes have occurred is critical for process engineers.
When incidents do occur, such as off-spec product, then investigations are completed. Occasionally, process engineers will be asked to lead investigations, but you may also be assigned action items from investigations completed by others.
Process Safety Management is a very important topic for Process Engineers. Hazard Analyses are completed for every operating unit with a qualified facilitator. If you would like to learn more, you can google "Process Hazard Analysis".
What hard and soft skills are the most important for your job?
Hard Skills: Chemical Reaction Engineering, fundamental understanding of catalysts - Sizing of Pressure Safety Valves - Fluid Dynamics, pump curves, control valves, friction loss, erosion due to velocity - Basic understanding of corrosion (materials).
Soft Skills: Communication, Critical Thinking, Working well with others, ability to gather and synthesize information from many sources including SME’s (Subject Matter Experts).
What is the best thing about your job?
My office is just outside the refinery perimeter gate. I can look up drawings, data sheets, engineering specifications, and then I go out in the field and I’m looking at the equipment and putting my hands on it a few minutes later. I am not a design engineer, I’m not sure what that would be like, but my first internship I was in the corporate office, and it was more difficult to learn. As an intern in a refinery and then working in a refinery as an engineer, I was able to pick up things much faster.
Which topics from your degree do you use the most on the workplace?
Fluid Dynamics & Process Safety & Chemistry (the basics, nothing beyond general college chemistry and fundamental organic chemistry)
What are your future plans for your career? What does your current job allow you to do in future?
I’m currently about 80% of the way through a Master of Science program at Georgia Tech. The degree is in Computer Science with an emphasis in Machine Learning. I think there is significant opportunity to leverage refinery data for improvements in efficiency and reliability. Valero is a great company and has many refineries across North America and one in Wales. I’m interested to see what initiatives will happen over the next few years with improving access to data and introduction of modern data analysis tools.
Refinery reliability is a very broad topic, but it is one that I think about a lot. Whatever role I take on in the future within refining, I know that improving reliability will be a key component. Operations, Engineering, and Maintenance all strive for improving reliability.
I also speak Portuguese from my two years in Brazil and Spanish because my wife is from Mexico and we speak mostly Spanish at home. I would like to be able to use my language skills. Valero is one of the largest importers of transportation fuels to Mexico, so there may be opportunity there.
Any suggestions for future graduates? Something they should be doing while they are still in university getting their degree.
I would spend some time researching specific jobs that a Chemical Engineer can do while in school and do your best to network with those people. Professors can be particularly helpful. For example, if you decided you want to work in a refinery, but you’re not sure where to start, then I would recommend approaching a professor and asking them if they have any contacts, maybe recent graduates working in refining that they think would be willing to talk. I have been asked by several students to talk to them about my career and I am always willing to do so.
What skills should future graduates focus on during university years? I would practice communicating with industry professionals. Being able to effectively communicate will open a lot of doors. I was able to coordinate a tour of a refinery for members of the professional society that I was a member of during college. It seems like a simple task, but actually taking on a simple project like setting up a tour of a refinery will provide good experience and confidence for future communications.