Ten common misconceptions about chemical engineers debunked (Day 199)

PerceptionWhen I started this blog my main aim was to showcase how chemical engineering is making a real difference across the world.

And I have been amazed at all the incredible tales of chemical engineering I have heard from so many different countries.

Building a detailed picture of chemical engineering is great, but one thing that concerns me are the common misconceptions about chemical engineers and chemical engineering I still hear.

To help dispel some of these I have put together a list of common misconceptions about chemical engineers that just aren’t true:

1. Chemical engineering involves a lot of chemistry

medicinesChemical engineering relies on the fundamental science of chemistry, and the application of it – just like mechanical engineering relies on mechanical physics. But as I discussed in my blog ‘Ten differences between chemistry and chemical engineering‘, chemical engineering involves a lot more mathematics and physics, whilst also encompassing biology and material science.

2. Only chemical engineers know what chemical engineering is

The Oxford Dictionary definition of chemical engineering describes our profession as ‘the branch of engineering concerned with the design and operation of industrial chemical plants’. For me, this definition isn’t broad enough but it’s a good starting point to begin the conversation. More so than other engineering disciplines, it is true that chemical engineering needs more explanation. But this is down to the fact the chemical engineering is so broad and has many varied applications, I think many people know what chemical engineering is they just don’t recognise it!

3. Chemical engineers are male

male and femaleThe majority of chemical engineers are male, but actually, about 1- in-4 chemical engineers entering the profession in the UK are female. See my blog ‘Gender’s not the only issue‘ – compared to other traditional engineering disciplines, chemical engineering is doing well.

4. Chemical engineers are not very sporty

This comes down to the very stereotypical images of chemical engineers, and engineers in general. But actually, chemical engineers can be and are sporty (I myself enjoy cricket). Every year in the UK, students representing their chemical engineering departments compete against each other at Frank Morton sports day. Next year, the event is being held in Birmingham, UK (Frank Morton 2015), with around 2,600 chemical engineering students from 24 universities participating in 19 different sports.

There were even chemical engineers competing at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, UK. Zoey Clark studying chemical engineering at the University of Aberdeen competed in the 4 x 400m relay team; Niall Flannery from Loughborough University ran in the final of the 400m hurdles; and Andrew Willis, who’s studying chemical engineering at the University of Bath, won Bronze in the 200m breaststroke.

Another notable chemical engineering sportswoman is South African cyclist, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio who won Bronze in the road race at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

5. Chemical engineers are not media savvy

Chemical engineering news stories appear in the media; whether it is the controversy surrounding the exploration of shale gas, following major incidents that occur in the chemical and process industries, or even as part of campaigns to raise awareness of STEM subjects and studying chemical engineering.

Because of my area expertise, I had to become media savvy and appear on numerous news programmes, which was particularly the case after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 when I was interviewed on the BBC and Sky News. In total, I did around 50 interviews in 85 days both in TV and radio. I was interviewed on Bloomberg news expressing my chemical engineering opinions and views on the latest attempt at the time to plug the leaking oil well:

6. Chemical engineers work in Energy

RefineryIt is true that a lot of chemical engineers work in the area of energy, whether that be oil and gas, nuclear power, renewables etc. The energy challenge is the biggest challenge facing mankind today, and so it is only natural that this be reflected in our areas of employment. But there are other key issues impacting our world today, as is obvious from my earlier blogs chemical engineers work in the health (‘Designing future medicines‘); food (‘Smart packaging detects food poisoning‘) and water (‘Combating sewer corrosion‘) industries.

7. Chemical engineers are geeks

Cartoon Chemical EngineerChemical engineers are passionate about what they do, but that does not make them geeks. According to Oxford Dictionary definition of a geek, it means ‘an unfashionable or socially inept person’. When I think about all the chemical engineers I have met along my travels as IChemE president, I can certainly say that is not the case. We should be proud to be chemical engineers and if we can communicate this well then by definition we are not geeks!

8. Chemical engineers don’t care about politics

FlagsCan chemical engineers influence the policy agenda? The answer is a simple yes! A good example of this is the current UK the chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Professor John Perkins CBE. He is a chemical engineer and past president of IChemE . Another example of a chemical engineer influencing the political agenda was the late Ashok Kumar, a chemical engineer and Labour MP who held his seat in parliament from 1997 until his sudden passing in 2010. In his honour IChemE set up a memorial fellowship in his name with the parliamentary office of science and technology (POST).

9. Chemical engineers like to stay in their ‘silos’

StacksCollaboration is the most important factor that allows chemical engineers to do their jobs, we are constantly working with other engineering and scientific disciplines. If a chemical engineer designs a process they need to work with; chemists to ensure that the reactions are correct; civil engineers to design plants; mechanical engineers to create machinery. If you look back through my blog this will only become clearer, chemical engineers rarely work alone, for example, I blogged about physicists and chemical engineers working together to produce ‘Digital brain implants and Rubik’s cubes’.

10. Chemical engineering – does it really matter?

This perhaps isn’t a misconception – but an understatement. Chemical engineers know that chemical engineering matters and that they make a real difference to quality of life for all. They just need to get better at telling everyone else! We need to make clear to the public that chemical engineering matters, and that chemical engineering has a hand in everything around us; whether that be keeping the lights on, manufacturing the medicines we need, cleaning the water we drink or processing the food we eat.

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Do you disagree with any of my misconceptions or have any of your own to dispel? If so, please get in touch and make your opinions known via the blog.

One thought on “Ten common misconceptions about chemical engineers debunked (Day 199)

  1. A good list of misconceptions. It is easy to think as oneself being a “geek” but the dictionary definition helps to dispell that myth.

    I with training many chemical engineers can and should be media savvy.

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