Dow Chemical process automation engineer Kimberly Ortiz has a time-consuming commute to her job at the company’s Plaquemine, La., complex. The trip is normally a pleasant 45-minute drive through lovely countryside, with plenty of time to think. But on days when the traffic doesn’t cooperate, the crawl can take three hours.
Some people wouldn’t like the drive, Ortiz says, but she doesn’t mind the time spent with her hands on the wheel—she’s a hands-on kind of person. And she is driven to do what it takes to succeed—to go the extra mile. Ortiz passes the commute time listening to books on tape or in long phone conversations with her mother. “It gives me a chance to prepare for the day and then decompress on the way home,” she says.
Ortiz always liked doing hands-on activities growing up, she says. “I would help my dad work on a car or on home improvement projects.” And she has long liked science. “I thought it was kind of cool that my aunt and uncle on my father’s side are an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer. I also had some great teachers in elementary and high school who made science fun and challenging—how much can you learn and how fast can you learn it?”
It was her high school chemistry teacher who planted the idea that Ortiz could marry the science and hands-on activity she loved by pursuing a career in chemical engineering. The transformation wasn’t a given, however.
One time, Ortiz had hurriedly completed a lab report so she could work on something else, she recalls. “When I got the report back, all my teacher had to say was, ‘This is lackluster.’ I remember feeling so disappointed because she knew I could do better. Without my teachers and my family giving me the drive, I am not certain I would have become a chemical engineer.”
Being driven was only one part of the equation for Ortiz. She knew her parents wouldn’t be able to contribute financially to her college education. Ortiz received some state scholarship funds, but the money wasn’t enough. Her high school chemistry teacher told her about the ACS Scholars Program.
“I knew I wanted to be an engineer, and to finish school in four years, and to not have thousands of dollars of debt,” Ortiz says. “The ACS Scholars Program took the financial burden out of the equation and let me focus on learning.”
Ortiz enrolled as a chemical engineering major in fall 2000 at Louisiana Tech University, in Ruston. During two summers, she participated in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, conducting research on surface and colloid chemistry at the University of Cincinnati.
After graduating from Louisiana Tech, she continued on there for a master’s degree. She became involved with another NSF program called GK-12, which couples grad school with science education. “Ruston is surrounded by many small communities that have limited resources, so the students don’t always get much exposure to extracurricular science and math activities,” Ortiz says. “As graduate students, we would take experiments to the students—like making an acid-base indicator out of red cabbage.”
Ortiz completed the course work for her master’s degree but didn’t get around to finishing a thesis project. “I began to give more thought to what I wanted to do in my career,” she says. “I realized the drive to be a research scientist maybe wasn’t as strong as I had thought.” Ortiz happened to go to a career fair where she met someone from Dow Chemical. One thing led to another, and a few months later, in June 2007, she had a job as a process automation engineer.
Today, Ortiz spends her workday writing and testing computer code for automated control systems that run chemical production plants, ensuring the facility meets specifications for safety and reliability. “It’s a little bit of investigation, changing some computer code, running some simulations to see if that remedies the issue, and if not, going back to drill down a little further and understand the problem then do a little more work.”
Ortiz has been out of college for a decade and now has the e-mail handle “KimmieTheChE.” She is currently participating on an advisory board for Louisiana Tech, sharing her experiences on becoming a professional in the chemical industry and making suggestions on how to better prepare the next set of students. Her involvement is a way to “pay it forward,” she says. “I want to find the best way to share what I have learned—both the easy way and the hard way.”
The ACS Scholars Program awards renewable scholarships of up to $5,000 each per academic year to underrepresented minority students who want to enter chemistry or chemistry-related fields. For more information, go to www.acs.org/success.