Taking Our Next Steps: An Interview with AIChE President Christine Grant

In March, AIChE and ChEnected observe Women’s History Month with commentary from AIChE members and leaders about the progress of women in the engineering community. 

Like many chemical engineers, Christine Grant made her first connection with AIChE through the encouragement and mentorship of someone from the next generation. “My first professional conference, as a graduate student, was at the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE),” Grant explained. “There, I met people who were chemical engineers — Henry Brown was one of them — and they talked about AIChE and the Minority Affairs Committee.”

Taking the next step to become involved in AIChE, Grant went on not only to chair the Minority Affairs Committee, but also to provide leadership in the Environmental Division, the Chemical Engineering Technology Operating Council, and eventually the Board of Directors. 

More about AIChE’s president

Today, Dr. Grant, who is Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the inaugural Associate Dean of Faculty Advancement in the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University, is AIChE’s president. She is the seventh woman elected as president of AIChE, and only the second African-American member to hold that office.

Aside from her teaching and research — which focuses on surface and interfacial phenomena — Grant is widely recognized for broadening the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions. Among her contributions, she co-edited the book Success Strategies from Women in STEM: A Portable Mentor, and contributed chapters to the recent books Growing Diverse STEM Communities: Methodologies, Impact and Evidence and Overcoming Barriers for Women of Color in STEM Fields.

As AIChE president, Grant has inherited an influential mentorship role for people in STEM. This month, ChEnected interviewed Dr. Grant about her vision for AIChE and its role in enhancing the professional prospects of all engineers. 

ChEnected: Tell us about your mentors. 

Christine Grant: My first woman STEM role model was my mother, Frances Grant, who was a university-trained biology teacher who taught in the segregated schools in South Carolina in the mid-1950s. I thought that all kids did science experiments with their moms while they were in elementary school. Her coaching aligned nicely with my music teacher father’s mentoring; he had his two daughters doing engineering projects such as building a greenhouse and working on his homebuilt boat. My first research internship, as a freshman, occurred at the General Electric Research and Development Center under the direction of Dr. Barbara Heath, a chemist in the microelectronics group. She was one of several women and men who inspired me to complete my chemical engineering undergraduate degree and immediately pursue a doctorate.

What are the most interesting changes that you’ve seen at AIChE since you first became involved?

AIChE continues to transform to meet the needs of the field. Our profession has expanded to include a diversity of products and services; there are opportunities for ChE graduates to pursue options ranging from materials, electronics, biomedical systems, to sustainability. AIChE has created entities such as the Institute for Sustainability, the Society for Biological Engineering, and the Center for Hydrogen Safety to empower our members to succeed in the technical realms. 

Also, the collective work of women in the Institute has created a paradigm shift in women leading change throughout the organization. For me, the election of our first woman president, Dianne Dorland, demonstrated that AIChE, through a fair and open election process, could elect leaders committed to the growth and sustainability of a more-diverse organization. 

What is your assessment of women’s progress in engineering? 

The undergraduate population of some chemical engineering departments is upwards of 40–50% women. There is, however, more work needed to increase the percentages of women in both advanced degree programs, and in professional leadership roles in academia and industry. We have a great number of chemical engineers who happen to be women. They are actively engaged as elected AIChE leaders or as volunteers. This resulting diversity of perspectives can broaden the definition of what is considered a “culture of success,” while more-inclusive management initiatives can only result in progress for our field. 

What can AIChE and chemical engineers do to improve the equity of the workforce? 

The implementation of the new concept of IDEAL — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Anti-racism and Learning — will create opportunities for all constituencies to engage in changing perceptions and attitudes in the profession. We can start with authentic inclusion across AIChE’s programs — realizing that equity means different things to different people. For example, AIChE’s Women in Chemical Engineering Community (WIC) “stands in support of the equitable treatment, representation, and employment of all women in chemical engineering.” This requires honest dialog, champions, and allies to ensure that we combine our collective talent to solve complex chemical engineering challenges. As we move forward, it is critically important to focus on the L (learning) in the IDEAL concept as well. 

What is your mission as AIChE President in 2022?

My mission is to create a culture of cohesion and collective work where voices matter,  while challenging members to pursue their own “NEXT”: the next career move, the next leadership opportunity, and, most importantly, the next connection they can make with peers, including those who are outside their traditional academic or industrial community. This is critically important as we collectively pursue the NEXT in light of the pandemic and recent global political unrest. My key goal is to establish a robust mentor/coaching initiative for members and leaders, extracting best practices from what we already do well, and providing formal learning opportunities to do even better. I am also committed to establish a governance plan for the Institute for Learning and Innovation (ILI); this will enable us to engage more constituencies across AIChE. 

By developing working partnerships across the Institute, we can enable the success of all members and stakeholders. That can provide a pathway for all of us to grow into our NEXT.

Learn more about AIChE’s Women in Chemical Engineering Community (WIC) and join today.