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Chemical Engineer

by Kristin Hart

An image of  Chemical Engineer, Kristin Hart

When you think about engineers does a picture of Dilbert, the comic strip character, pop into your head? Do you see geeks with pocket protectors who do nothing but stare at a computer terminal? Even though Dilbert can be hilarious and I sometimes do identify a little too closely with him, being an engineer with the DNR can actually be an adventure. For instance, I ve climbed 100 foot smokestacks, been involved in criminal investigations, watched robots paint cars, and seen 5 tons of molten iron poured delicately into smoking sand molds on a foundry floor.

I am an air management engineer. Air pollution is my business, or, should I say, helping prevent air pollution is my business. Most engineers in my field are divided into compliance inspectors and permit writers. Compliance inspectors go into the field almost every day. They make sure that people are following their air permits, that they are "in compliance." Sometimes they are inspecting a facility such as the General Motors car manufacturing plant in Janesville. Maybe they are looking into a complaint of bad odors coming from a facility, or dark smoke coming out a stack. On other days they may investigate violations of the air pollution standards such as the knocking down of a building without notification.

Permit writers spend a lot of time in front of computers. I write permits and don t get into the field as much as the compliance inspectors do, but before I start a new permit I get to go on a tour of the plant that will get the permit. And just what is a permit you ask? A permit is a collection of all the air pollution laws and requirements that a certain company must follow. If a company should have an air permit and doesn t, that s a violation and an investigation will start.

The air program also has engineers that make policy and write rules. Some go to conferences at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina to negotiate with the Environmental Protection Agency in making national policy. Still others travel overseas to share with other countries our philosophies on pollution regulation and to compare technologies in monitoring and modeling air pollution emissions.

Do you want to be an engineer? There are all kinds of engineers working in all kinds of fields. Here at the DNR we have civil, environmental, chemical, electrical, mining, and agricultural engineers all working as air management engineers. I wanted to be many things when I was growing up; a veterinarian, an astronaut, a physicist, and a naturalist. When I was in sixth grade I wasn t that good in math and didn t even know what an engineer was. But by ninth grade we were studying algebra and geometry, chemistry and physics and I knew I wanted to be a scientist and that I would need to go to college.

In my first year of college I took calculus, Russian, history, and introductory physics. But it wasn t until my second year of college that I finally settled on chemical engineering. By my senior year of college, though, I realized that I didn t want to work as a chemical engineer for industry. I needed a break to think about what I could do with my degree and my life. I joined the Peace Corps, went to Guatemala and worked in fisheries for 2 years.

It was the Peace Corps experience that led me to the Department of Natural Resources. I was looking for a job and thought I d apply at the local fish hatchery. The DNR s employment office got me information on the air program and I knew I d found a way to combine my skills in engineering with my love of nature and the outdoors.

And 8 years later, here I am. Today I m going to a meeting with an international chemical company to discuss their past permitting history. On Monday I was at a county asphalt plant working on their permit renewal application. Thursday and Friday I ll be in the office finishing up a foundry permit and checking out the computer modeling results of the emissions on another foundry. So am I like Dilbert? Probably a little. I ve been known to carry my calculator around in my purse and talk about the chemistry of ozone formation at parties. But it doesn t matter as long as I love what I do.

Please write to EEK! and let us know what natural resource careers you re interested in. Then keep your eyes peeled for new career features that YOU requested.

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