All-Around Athlete, Chemical Engineer - Stephanie England
“My identity had always been driven by being a diver. During my fifth year when sports were over, I realized that I wasn’t a diver anymore. I said to myself ‘Okay, what now? So who am I? I guess I’m a chemical engineer now.’ While I was in sports, taking classes for chemical engineering was a side thing for me. I didn’t take my eyes off the paper until sports were over and realized that this is who I am going to be, and it’s going to be my job. Chemical engineering was what I was studying, but who I was, was an athlete.”
Name: Stephanie England | Occupation: Chemical Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: Georgia Tech University, BS 2009
This blog series so far has introduced me to a number of amazing and well-rounded women. I love making connections with them and listening to their stories. What’s also been great is that many of these women have referred me to others who they think would be interested in speaking with me. That’s how I was introduced to Stephanie.
Stephanie’s perspective shies away from my original driving factor for beginning this blog series. Instead of feeling as though being an engineer is her sole identity, she identified herself as an athlete, more specifically a diver, for the longest time. Engineering always came second for her. When I asked her about this, she explained.
“My identity had always been driven by being a diver. During my fifth year when sports were over, I realized that I wasn’t a diver anymore. I said to myself ‘Okay, what now? So who am I? I guess I’m a chemical engineer now.’ While I was in sports, taking classes for chemical engineering was a side thing for me. I didn’t take my eyes off the paper until sports were over and realized that this is who I am going to be, and it’s going to be my job. Chemical engineering was what I was studying, but who I was, was an athlete. And that was the year where I thought maybe I made a mistake and that I should go into nutrition or exercise science. As I came into my own, I realized I loved it though. It’s a part of my identity but I wouldn’t say it’s who I am.”
I am glad that Stephanie gave me this perspective because I think that many of us go through these stages in life where we are focused on one thing, and then move onto the next focus once a new chapter is opened. I wanted to know where she is currently at with how she views herself, so I asked her what her current perspective on her identity is.
“In the last few years, my identity has shifted. I was a workaholic a couple years ago. Now I’m putting a lot more into the community and my church. I have taken a step back from work and put more effort into other things that mean a lot to me. I feel like I’m more well-rounded now. I do think being a workaholic was necessary to develop my skills though. Being in a plant, you can work forever and all the time. But that’s not what I want to do anymore. I’m in a more balanced place now.”
Now let’s rewind. Stephanie is currently an environmental manager with a chemical engineering degree under her belt. She works at a chemical manufacturer here in the Lowcountry. So what originally sparked Stephanie’s interest in engineering?: “My dad is an engineer, a civil engineer, and my mom is a dentist. But I remember loving chemistry as early as 5th grade. I carried that through high school and had a great AP chemistry teacher who taught us the fundamentals. I was always good at math too. I knew in high school that chemical engineering was the track I wanted to take.”
It’s interesting to hear from the majority of engineers that they chose this field because they were good at math and science from an early age. I hear this all the time. But do we really know at such a young age what we want to do with the rest of our lives just because we are good at something? I don’t think a lot of us know what we are getting ourselves into.
“Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you declared chemical engineering as your major?” I asked her.
“Not at all. I think I knew I liked chemistry and math but I didn’t really know what chemical engineers did until I went to college. Both of my parents told me about chemical engineering and that it was a profession,” she said. “I think I just knew I liked chemistry. I think what was different than I expected was the mechanical side of things - the fluid dynamics and that sort of thing. And to be honest, I didn’t want to be a process engineer in the plant when I was interviewing for internships and full time jobs. It kind of intimidated me, and I ended up in production engineering anyway because it’s your go-to role for a chemical engineer. But I love it now. I was scared of it at first, and I think it felt like more of a man’s job, and it intimidated me. It doesn’t feel that way anymore though. But I think once you start full time, you’re too busy to be intimidated. You don’t have time to think about your fears anymore. Once I got the feel of working in a plant and saw how rewarding it was, I was totally hooked.”
“Do you feel like your parents encouraged you to do engineering?” I asked her.
“They suggested it, I wouldn’t say they forced me into it. They kind of nudged. They knew what I was good at,” she said.
Stephanie began her career as a production engineer and worked at a lead-acid battery company. She then switched to another company, which eventually lead her to where she is now at her current job at the manufacturing plant. She explained to me that working at a plant is never boring because it is very fast-paced and high pressure. Stephanie is always on call because it’s a 24/7 facility. Despite that, she loves it. Out of 200 people that work at the plant, approximately 20 employees are female, five of which are engineers.
“I feel like we are all nerds in a sense. But we are a pretty social group. We go out for happy hour and a lot of us are athletes,” she said with a smile.
As Stephanie continued to explain to me what she does on a daily basis as an environmental manager, I wanted to know if she could tell me of any rewards and challenges of being a minority in her role. She revealed to me that she doesn’t see being a woman engineer as a challenge. She sees the limitations you put on yourself as a challenge.
“So I had never thought twice about becoming a female engineer as a kid. It was what it was. I didn’t think anything about being a female in engineering until I did my first internship at a plant. I was one of very few women there and was extremely intimidated at first. And I also think I had this preconceived notion that men somehow grew up knowing how pumps and tools work. I don’t know why but I thought that they just knew this stuff already. And part of me was afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want to look stupid. Over time, I realized that there wasn’t a reason I couldn’t do all that stuff. Now, I think it’s easy. But honestly like I said, once I got busy, I was too distracted to worry about being a female anymore. I was just another person and was there to get my job done. I would say it took me a few years to feel comfortable and get to this point.”
She continued: “I did have a contractor one time ask me ‘So what made you want to do this’? And I thought maybe he wouldn’t have asked that question to a man. You have to overcome these things though. I was feeling insecure because I didn’t have a grasp on my job yet, and not necessarily because I was a woman. I just had to gain the confidence that I knew what I was doing enough to make decisions and be in charge of my unit. My company is very supportive of women and provides them with a lot of opportunity.”
So how about rewards? Stephanie replied: “I think the biggest reward to being a female engineer is feeling like you’ve overcome a stereotype. I guess sometimes I’ve wondered in the past if I was promoted just because I am a female, but then again, I don’t really have to time to think about that. I just do my job. I’m part of the team,” she stated. “I do get a surprised/impressed reaction when I tell people that I am an engineer, and I’m definitely proud of it. It throws people off and makes me feel good. I’m not going to sugar coat it. People don’t usually expect it.”
There was a period of time where Stephanie explained to me that she thought she had made a mistake with choosing chemical engineering as her major. She told me that she was considering becoming a registered dietitian or going into sports medicine during her last two years of college after sports came to an end. She realized however that engineering was more lucrative and presented a lot of opportunity, so she stuck with it and is now glad she did.
“Can you tell me about what made you question your major?” I was curious to know.
“Um, so I think being an athlete had something to do with it. That was really my focus the first three years of college. And I don’t think I ever sunk my teeth into my classes. I did well, but I wasn’t passionate about it at the time at all. I didn’t have a great grasp on it, and the concepts weren’t really falling into place for me. I knew I was passionate about nutrition and CrossFit. In fact, I wanted to open my own CrossFit gym one day. I think my passions were just elsewhere at the time. But once I started getting into wrapping my head around my job a little more, I realized how much fun it was and that my brain is definitely built for it.”
If Stephanie could go back in time to being her 18 year-old self, she told me that she would tell herself to be more bold and ask more questions. “I would tell myself to not be afraid of speaking up if you don’t understand something. When you’re young, you don’t realize you’re not supposed to know everything. I also would have taken advantage of more learning opportunities at Georgia Tech. I think if I had been really passionate about it at the time, I would have done a lot more. Sports were my focus instead.”
Would you recommend engineering to a young girl still in school? I asked her.
“Yeah! But I would recommend it to anyone - male or female,” she replied.
I wanted to know if there was anything else that she wants people to know about female engineers. She thought about it for a minute, and then said no.
“Honestly I just think of myself as an engineer, and not a female engineer. I don’t let it define me.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, Stephanie told me about her passions of mountain biking, skiing, CrossFit, and beach volleyball. Every morning she wakes up at 4:20 AM to get in her exercise and beat rush hour traffic to get to work so that she can come home early to do the things she enjoys: “I want to get involved with the community as much as I can. I also love to travel. Heidi I are actually going to Belize in November.”