Christine S. Grant, North Carolina State University: The Future of Chemical Engineering

Christine Grant is Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Associate Dean of Faculty Development and Special Initiatives in the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University. She is a researcher in surface and environmental science and biomaterials, a former director of AIChE, and a long-time mentor to underrepresented minority and women faculty.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed Dr. Grant to learn her perspectives on the future of chemical engineering. In today’s blog post, we compare some of Grant’s comments from 2008 with her perspectives today. 

In 2008, Dr. Grant shared these thoughts:  

To make full use of the national talent pool, I believe that a diverse workforce requires innovation in the recruitment, promotion, and retention of underrepresented groups at all levels in the academy. Up to now, AIChE’s Minority Faculty Forum in the Minority Affairs Committee has provided particular leadership in the development of a diverse faculty in chemical engineering.

The presence of underrepresented minority and women faculty as scholars, mentors and teachers will impact the profession beyond the walls of the university. These educators do much more than teach core ChE subjects and perform research. They often open the eyes of students from many backgrounds to the opportunities within the profession. At the same time, the identification and hiring of diverse faculty must be coupled with an environment that celebrates them as scholarly colleagues and provides both peer and senior faculty mentoring to ensure successful navigation of an often-challenging career path.

In a new 2018 interview, here’s what Dr. Grant said: 

Looking 25 years into the future, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

A plethora of opportunities exists in the areas that chemical engineers are working in today. This has evolved significantly over the past ten years, and our graduates are working in companies and entities that look quite different than they did ten years ago. Pharma, bio-based processes, nanotechnology, and energy are just a few of the large realms that will require large interdisciplinary teams to tackle the issues.

The entire concept of “convergence” as a paradigm-shifting way of connecting with collaborations to solve complex problems will result in new realms of research that we have never seen before. 

Core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber-tools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area?

One of the largest issues impacting the application of core areas in ChE is the transfer and transmittal of information and the ready access to current and emerging technical information. I don’t believe that textbooks and traditional methods of training our students will be the wave of the future. The way that we teach students the core principles will also shift to ensure that graduates are “up to date” on the technologies. The textbooks or “training apps” of the future will integrate the new expertise using big data and cyber-tools to incorporate nanoscale solutions to biosystems, sustainability, and energy. 

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

The entire concept of “convergence” as a paradigm-shifting way of connecting with collaborations to solve complex problems will result in new realms of research that we have never seen before. In reality, the concepts associated with interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinary working teams will be applied to both large- and small-scale issues that will have a global impact. New industries will integrate the delivery of health care with smart electronics to provide instant access to information for both patients and the medical establishment. Chemical engineers will be at the intersection and will deliver creative solutions at this nexus.

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future — what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

I am not convinced that what we consider to be “smart students” now will look and do the same things in the future. The very way that they process information in this “I have to have it now” world may not encourage deeper, reflective thinking about problems. Educators will need to evolve to utilize different techniques that will have applications in real-world situation where our students will work. The emergence of other countries training their own students, in contrast to sending them to the U.S., will also change the landscape of how engineering problems are presented and solved. 

As I wrote in 2008, it will be critical to engage all segments of our society, broadening participation and drawing on the diverse perspectives of our entire population. The profession cannot afford to fail to utilize the entire demographic available to solve complex issues. In this regard, the authentic inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities in the profession will only enhance the robust, rich nature of the technologies that chemical engineers will create.

AIChE's 110 Year Celebration

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