I Thought My Father Was a “Garbage Man” But He’s a Chemical Engineer

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“I spent most of my childhood thinking my dad was a garbage man,” my college roommate shrugs as we sit and talked over two Frappuccinos, “then I found out that he is a chemical engineer.”

I choke on my blended drink as I laugh. She says it so matter-of-factly but I’m at a loss as to how she could have gotten confused between these two careers. I mean, in my mind, a chemical engineer is a man in a white lab coat playing with beakers filled with different colored liquids and a garbage man is one of those guys who comes in the big truck on Thursday mornings to grab the bin I (hopefully) put out on the curb.

“Sarah…” I ask, “how did you get garbage man from chemical engineer?”

“Well,” she says, “I would always ask my mom where my dad was going in the morning and she would tell me he was going to the dump. So I just assumed.”

I have to admit, she’s got me there. Heading to the dump is not what I picture for a chemical engineer. I realize that I have no idea what a chemical engineer actually does.

Luckily for me, Sarah hooked me up with an interview and I got to learn all about what being a chemical engineer is like and why one might spend his day at the dump.

Peter Soriano is a Staff Scientist at Getty Oil. He collects landfill gas which is generated by the decomposition of waste at landfills. The gas that’s collected is then processed and burned to make power in any one of a number of pieces of generating equipment.

The power generated is then sold to the electric grid as renewable power like wind or solar. As a Staff Scientist, Peter looks over all the data collected at each of the 60 or so sites across the country to see if they are performing per their budgets.

Why Chemical Engineering?

As a 17-year-old, what better way is there to choose your major than to rebel against your father’s wishes?

Peter Soriano was always good in both mathematics and chemistry. He had a wonderful chemistry teacher in high school who recommended he continue his studies in Chemical Engineering at Clarkson College of Technology (Now Clarkson University). His father wanted him to be a Civil Engineer which, of course, only further convinced him to study Chemical Engineering instead.

Graduating in 1970 with a B.S. of Ch.E. Peter then went on to get his M.S. of Ch.E. in 1972 from Clarkson University as well.

Journey to Becoming a Chemical Engineer:

Peter did not become a Staff Scientist overnight.

After graduating from Clarkson University, he didn’t even enter directly into the workforce. Instead, he served in the US Army. In college he had been in ROTC and became an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers after graduation. Because he already had a Master’s degree, he became a new recruit instructor.

After his tour of duty was over he entered into a job market that was not very good. He ended up getting a job as a technician for a centrifuge company in New York. According to Peter, landing this job was the luckiest break of his life because it really had nothing to do with his field of study and yet they hired him anyway.

Even though this job didn’t directly relate to his major, he still leveraged his knowledge and training in chemical engineering to succeed at this job. While installing equipment in breweries, wine making facilities, potato processing plants, etc., his engineering background allowed him to comprehend what was happening within those processes and help them to work better.

Later on, Peter was able to get a job working for a firm in the oil and gas business. At this firm, he worked with other engineers to develop equipment for use in the collection of deep gas well injection. He even got his name on one of the patents for the equipment that they developed.

When Risks Pay Off:

Then, the company he was working for planned to relocate from California to Houston, Texas. Peter did not want to move to Texas and so took a risk, refused to relocate, and was laid off. This may have seemed like a bump in his career, but it actually ended up working out for the best. He ended up taking a job working for a consulting company in Union Oil refinery work, pretty much exactly what he had gone to school for.

After about six months working on projects at two refineries, a head hunter contacted him about an opportunity to work on synthetic fuels for Getty Oil.

This was something that Peter knew nothing about.

But, being 32 years old at the time and still totally open and interested in learning about something new, he agreed to apply. At the interview, he found out that they had a process for making and cleaning up natural gas for the oil and gas industry and were looking for a way to apply this process to the methane and carbon dioxide that was produced in landfills. There was no sure answer for how to go about doing this.

After meeting with some of the older management, Peter saw how interested they were in processing these gases, but that they weren’t going to be doing any of the actual experimentation. He saw the opportunity to use his experience and to get ahead in the industry. And that’s how he got his start working at the dump.

He was hired on and put together a team of scientists to do testing and to gather information in the field. He also had a team of individual scientists; two PhDs (one in mathematics and one in environmental engineering) and a Master’s graduate in environmental science who worked on data interpretation after they generated the field data. Peter explained to Getty Oil that, at the time, they had no idea what to expect. In order to make the best decisions, he would need to perform testing with scientists who were trained to look at data and identify the best data to base their decisions off of. Peter was funded over a million dollars to study the methodology of capturing and processing gas from landfills.

After testing over 50 landfills throughout the US and Canada, Peter and his team had enough data to create landfill models by which they could estimate the amount of gas produced by landfills and then design the best way to capture that gas. This (the ‘70s and early ‘80s) was the beginning of the synthetic fuels industry. All of the scientists from his original group of 24 are key individuals within the industry today.

Typical Day as a Staff Scientist:

A typical day consists of going online and looking at the last day’s performance of some of the plants which are running across the country. If he sees issues with performance, Peter will take the data and make charts and graphs to show upper management. If they also agree that there is an issue, Peter may go to the site or contact the field personnel in that area to look at the operation and propose changes to take the performance back on budget.

Other times he will help his financial group decide whether or not they should make an offer to purchase a new facility or finance an older facility by putting together long-term performance data on those plants.

His job nowadays is more like a data scientist; interpreting and analyzing the data collected. Twenty-five years ago he was the guy in the field getting the data for analysis.

Peter’s favorite parts of his job are when he’s working with others within the company. With his experience, he is able to talk with the staff at any facility around the country to get up-to-date information and on-site information from the operators and technicians. He can then explain the data and show them what appears to be happening. It’s exciting to see them make adjustments based on his recommendations and to be rewarded with the better performance that usually follows.

At the same time, there are always a lot of things going on at facilities around the country and so it can take a while before they’re able to implement the change. Since Peter is usually the first to see the issues, this timeline can seem especially long.

Skills a Chemical Engineer Must Have:

The most important skill is the ability to find the correct data and be able to interpret it. The formal education you get at college allows you to understand information. As a supervisor, Peter allows his staff to make decisions using the information they have. As long as the new information shows that they are progressing in the right direction, he allows them to continue on. It’s important to make sure that if the direction you take is not right, that you notice, stop, and re-assess the data. Don’t try to force an outcome that will not work.

It also doesn’t hurt to get an advanced degree. Though Peter never got his PE registration, he realizes that it is more important today than it was when he graduated. It’s definitely a plus for any chemical engineering candidate.

He did, however, get his Class A construction license and drilling license because his company needed someone with these certificates to build and construct facilities and recommends being open to such licenses.

Advice for Students:

Learn to think. The university experience will show you that you can learn. Take this tool and use it all the time to grow in any job in any field that interests you.

When Peter first entered into synthetic fuels generation over 35 years ago, no one knew what to expect. He embraced working in this new field and it used his critical thinking and problem-solving skills to come up with tests and techniques to optimize recovery of landfill gases which are still used today.

So that’s his advice: take good information. Don’t be afraid to make assumptions about what it means and what you expect. Then test and run trials with all the data you can. If you do that, even if your initial guesses are wrong, you will be able to find a better direction to pursue and eventually find the best way to proceed.

Homework time! As a Chemical Engineer, you’ll definitely want technical skills, but you also need to make sure that you’re nurturing your critical thinking and problem-solving abilities as well. Practice identifying important data. Don’t be afraid to take on challenges that don’t have a clear answer. Like Peter says, make assumptions and then test things out. It’s okay to be wrong. Just realize that you’re going in the wrong direction, stop what you’re doing, and try another approach.

Also, Peter did not start out as a Staff Scientist. Like he said, he started out as that guy who was out in the fields gathering the data. Be prepared to embrace every stage of your chemical engineering career and know what you can expect as you progress.

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