A Long Road to Yale

6/6   in the series I Am a Chemical Engineer

Fernanda Sulantay overcame many obstacles on her path to success. A full-time chemical engineering PhD student at Yale, a content creator behind popular Instagram and TikTok accounts dedicated to sharing her experience, and a mother twice over, she is as accomplished as she is busy. Still, looking at these achievements alone does not consider the difficult and unique path she took to get where she is.

The early years

Born in El Salvador to working-class parents, Sulantay immigrated to Connecticut when she was nineteen. She spoke little English but was determined to pursue her education and enrolled in her local community college after less than a year of after-work English as a second language classes. Starting off, Sulantay’s studies were challenging as she worked to pay for her education and learn English along the way, but she soon realized that community college was an ideal environment for her. She appreciated how the small class sizes, low cost, and close connections between students and professors allowed her to flourish as she began her engineering education.

“In high school and middle school, whenever I took math or chemistry and all these science courses, it was super fun for me to figure out how the world works,” she says. Like many chemical engineers, Sulantay saw chemical engineering as a great way to combine her passion for chemistry and math.

When she finished her time at community college, she transferred to the Univ. of Connecticut, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. In doing so, she became the first person in her family to earn a college degree. As a first-generation college graduate, Sulantay quickly realized that she was at a disadvantage compared to other students whose parents worked in science and technology and who had role models in their lives who were engineers. “I was trying to figure out what everyone else was trying to figure out, but also more than that.”

After graduation, she was searching for a way to further her career and education when a professor brought her attention to a Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) position at Princeton Univ. Apprehensive at first, she doubted the likelihood of her acceptance, but — to her surprise — she got the position. This helped set in motion a fruitful career at different companies and colleges.

This formative experience at Princeton also instilled a key lesson: the best way to find opportunities is by forming connections with others. She also recognized that it is always better to try for an opportunity than to abstain out of fear of failure. She credits this philosophy with helping her land her current research position at Yale.

Today’s research

Today, Sulantay is researching computer modeling of nonclassical nucleation patterns on heterogeneous surfaces for her PhD studies. She approaches her research as a full-time job, balancing the rest of her time between motherhood and her extracurricular interests. She credits her advisor, Amir Haji-Akbari, with encouraging her to strike a positive work-life balance and to make her mental health a priority. From this approach, Sulantay has found that, “at the end of the day, you end up being more productive.”

As a woman in engineering with roots in El Salvador, Sulantay has worked hard to make a home for herself in academia. Still, maneuvering through the institutions of a new country never comes easily. “Ever since I moved to the U.S., I have always felt like an outsider. The jokes, the TV shows, everything. Your whole life is different,” she says. “But I honestly feel like challenges bring out what’s inside of you. And these challenges brought out the characteristics of being resilient and tenacious.”

Giving back

Her desire to share her unique experience and to provide a role model for individuals in similar circumstances was the impetus for starting her Instagram and TikTok pages. There, she discusses everything from a chemical engineering researcher’s day-to-day life to engineering memes and advice on how to look for jobs and internships. Her social media presence is an approachable and playful retelling of her life and experience and an excellent resource for those curious about chemical engineering careers and academia.

“I started doing it to help people,” she says. “It was my way of volunteering when we couldn’t volunteer in person to help students like me, first-generation students, underrepresented students, or students coming from low-income families.” Increasing the representation of Latina engineers remains a mission for Sulantay, and her social media presence is only one of her tools. She works with brands to spread awareness of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers and frequently speaks at STEM conferences, graduations, and events.

Looking towards the future

In the future, Sulantay has many roads open to her, although, true to form, it is likely that she will find a way to balance all of them. Her time in academia has given her a passion for teaching. At the same time, her engineering skills and knowledge are in demand in industry, while her talent as a STEM influencer presents an entirely separate set of opportunities. Whatever path she chooses, the future is bright.

This profile originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.