Kristin pictured with her husband going through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand.
Welcome to the latest in a series of AIChE blog posts profiling process engineers, a diverse group of professionals spanning multiple industries and regions. In this series, we profile process engineers who work in diverse fields, including petrochemicals, pharma, bulk chemicals, food, or any process-intensive industry.
Are you a member and process engineer interested in being profiled? We’d love to hear from you via this volunteer opportunity. Please also check out our online discussion group specifically for process engineers. You can find out about these initiatives and join our efforts by visiting https://www.aiche.org/processengineering.
This month, we introduce you to Kristin Prejean, process design engineer at CITGO Petroleum Corporation. She discusses what led her to choosing a career in process engineering, how to succeed in her profession, and the importance of her work.
Tell us a bit about your work as a process engineer.
I spent five years in the process engineering department supporting operations, three years in operations as a unit supervisor, and the last year and a half working as a process design engineer in our capital projects department. While supporting operations, you must create a routine and learn how to monitor your specific unit(s) so that you can catch problems early and troubleshoot correctly.
It’s important to know when your unit needs optimization so you can capture the full potential of the valuable products and cut utilities when you can. I quickly recognized how critical monitoring tools are to the operation of the unit (such as bad lab data, an instrument in need of repair or calibration, or an issue with the operation of the unit).
You must be able to communicate the issue to the correct person with clear supporting material. This person may be your direct supervisor, operations or maintenance, other operations support or engineering departments, or higher-level management.
Effective communication skills are just as critical as learning your unit and finding resources for troubleshooting. You have to be able to develop a good relationship with everyone who interacts with that unit so you know whom to send findings, and who can be used as a resource. This extends beyond the process engineering department to every job I’ve had in the refinery.
Why did you become a process engineer?
I actually first went to college and received a degree in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry. As I moved through my senior year, my priorities shifted so I took some time off once I graduated to assess a few different career pathways.
Assigning priority to your tasks and maintaining an attitude of perpetual learning are critical to your success as a process engineer.
My maternal grandfather and uncle were both engineers and my father was an electrical engineer. As I reviewed my family history and what was available in my area, I decided to go back to school to get a second degree in chemical engineering and join the local industry.
Process engineering was the most common starting position, and during my internship, I saw how critical and varied the work of the process engineer was, and I knew it was for me.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your role as a process engineer?
As you transition away from a textbook and tests with clear answers, you must learn how to move from the cut-and-dry academic world to using that theory in real-life situations. Assigning priority to your tasks and maintaining an attitude of perpetual learning are critical to your success as a process engineer.
Finding time to organize your tasks into actionable items and determining where your best resources are to seek solutions to problems are vital when you find that you have less and less time to do them as you progress through your career. It can easily get overwhelming when one of your process units is heading towards a turnaround with lots of activities to plan and a problem pops up on another unit that needs immediate troubleshooting.
As you gather your knowledge base and streamline your resources for troubleshooting and planning, it will help these tasks go faster and allow you to feel less overwhelmed.
How is your work as a process engineer critical to your particular job assignment or industry?
A process engineer plays a pivotal role in the refinery. We’re asked to do a wide variety of duties, including things that you will not have learned in school or thought of as part of your job description.
We act as a bridge between the theory of how a thing should work and how it does work in the day to day. The weaker the bridge is, the less the day-to-day operations will match the optimum.
Kristin at the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Hollywood
What do you think is most important about what you do as a process engineer?
The editorial for the August 2020 CEP touches on the normalization of deviations and how lots of small decisions to shortcut items that may seem mundane can lead to larger consequences.
Process engineers are part of the foundation of process safety management (PSM) in any facility and must hold themselves to that standard in everything they do. You have to properly troubleshoot, document, and communicate your work. Holding to or exceeding the PSM expectations should be a natural part of your routine.