In the past, chemical engineers have been employed in process engineering, mainly in two industries: chemicals and petroleum. Not anymore. Today they have a wide array of career choices. Among many industries utilizing the skills of chemical engineers are: food processing, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, electronics, renewable energy, biofuels, and nanotechnology.
Just as they were instrumental in discovering and harnessing fossil fuels for energy production, chemical engineers are now engaged in developing new, sustainable sources of energy: biomass, biofuels, hydroelectric energy, geothermal energy, solar power, and wind power. Another achievement of chemical engineers is inventing new technologies to reduce pollutants entering the environment. One example of these technologies is bioaugmentation — the use of microbes to transform and detoxify pollutants in groundwater and soil.
Dr. Elizabeth Edwards, a professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto, and a leader of Biodegraders Research Group, is credited for successful development of cost-efficient and sustainable biodegrading techniques and bioproducts.
What exactly happens in bioaugmentation? “We’ve identified new microbes capable of biodegrading common groundwater contaminants,” Edwards shares. “There are so many microbes in a gram of soil, and depending on how you coax them into growing, you can get different members of the community to bloom. The trick is to learn how to promote the activity that leads to detoxification of pollutants.”
When it comes to employment prospects for chemical engineering graduates, Edwards says, “I believe that they are good, and that all grads eventually get a job. Perhaps not right away, but they do within about six months.”
How relevant is further education beyond a Bachelor’s? “There is no question that there is a lot more learning needed after the Bachelor's. However, some companies really like to hire right out of the Bachelor's and provide the training in-house. Others like to have someone with more expertise. It’s really up to the individual and their personal goals and opportunities. It never hurts to take a job if you’re offered one. You can always go back to school.”
Chemical engineering often becomes intertwined with biology and biomedicine, so many chemical engineers work in proteomics, genomics, and biomedical engineering as a result.
Dr. Aaron Schimmer, a staff physician in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at the Princess Margaret Hospital, scientist at OCI, and assistant professor in Medicine and Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto, is recognized in the field of biomedicine for the discovery of novel routes for treatment of cancer.
Schimmer’s research team has established therapeutic strategies that target leukemia on a cellular level, killing off the affected cells while sparing the normal healthy cells. What makes Schimmer’s achievements outstanding is the re-purposing of old drugs for new treatments. To identify new therapeutic strategies, his team compiles libraries of known on-patent and off-patent drugs, and screens them to identify agents of previously unrecognized purity that target leukemia cells and stem cells population.
For Schimmer, the primary benefit of the career in biomedical research is the opportunity to be engaged closely with issues facing patients and the immediate relevancy to the work one’s doing. “A lot of people enjoy the close links between what they working on and the problems their patients are currently facing.”
To get into this field, it’s helpful to have a synthetic chemistry background. “Once you get additional training in biology, it puts you in a very unique niche,” said Schimmer. “Biologists can’t do chemistry and very few chemists have an understanding of biology, so that kind of training becomes highly valuable. It puts you in a niche where there is a lot of job potential.”
So what’s it really like to study chemical engineering?
Jine Jine Li, studying for a Master’s in Chemical Engineering at University of Toronto, said, “The major challenge of being in a research-oriented program is time management and motivation. There are certain times where results don't work out or no progress is being made, and it becomes really difficult to move ahead. At these times it’s important to think about the big picture, and really be able to motivate yourself to think outside the box.
“The benefits of this program are the exciting problems that need to be solved, and once you do actually get results, it’s quite exciting to discover and see what you've actually achieved. You learn a lot about being an independent individual, planning out your schedule in advance, and solving problems in general.”