Fired Up About STEM
You probably know that most car engines burn gasoline to create power, which is why they’re called combustion engines. But many furnaces also rely on combustion to produce heat by burning coal, natural gas, or oil. These furnaces range from small pieces of equipment used to heat our homes to massive units responsible for melting raw materials in places like steel mills.
Combustion is a chemical process between substances (oxygen is usually one of them) that produces heat. Anyone who has sat around a campfire, lit a candle, looked at the stars, or watched a rocket launch has witnessed combustion. Even though it’s all around us, we don’t often think about the chemical process taking place, or the conditions necessary to allow combustion to occur efficiently. That’s where someone like Ashleigh Walters comes in. President of Onex, Inc., Ashleigh oversees all divisions of the industrial furnace service and manufacturing company. Their work directly supports manufacturing facilities all over the United States.
Ashleigh has always had a passion for chemistry, but didn’t get her start in the realm of industrial furnaces. “In college, I studied chemical engineering with a focus in pulp and paper. I was in charge of the TAPPI (Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry) pulp and paper team. We traveled with a paper making machine and taught students how paper was made from tree pulp,” describes Ashleigh. (There are tons of chemical reactions involved in the creation of paper, but that’s a story for another time.)
As Ashleigh discovered, having a background in engineering and chemistry opens a lot of doors. “After college, I went to work in the nuclear power industry as a safety system engineer. Then I joined Onex, Inc. as a sales engineer for the pulp and paper industry. The chemistry in our process is in the combustion that occurs between air and natural gas, which provides heat to the furnaces,” explains Ashleigh. She advanced through various roles within the company, and now serves as president, which means she is responsible for day-today operations, as well as making sure its processes are as efficient as possible.
Going from sales engineer to president took a lot of hard work and great leadership skills. Ashleigh’s father told her to always ask questions of the people who were actually doing the jobs within a company because they were the ones who knew the problems and could likely offer solutions. She took that advice to heart and worked with evaporator system operators in a paper plant to go from cleaning the paper plant equipment (called “boiling out”) every three days to every eight days, which made it much more efficient. “Management was shocked! They wanted to know how I did it. Well, I asked questions of the operators and allowed them to be the solution to the problem. I continue to lead by asking questions today,” reflects Ashleigh.
Even if the chemistry of combustion isn’t your thing, chemistry offers tons of career opportunities because it is such a broad field. Ashleigh advises students to “find a way to shadow a chemist/chemical engineer to see what their day-to-day life is like at work. Is this something you can see yourself enjoying? If so, do your research and apply to a college known for its chemistry or chemical engineering program. Even though your degree will be tough to obtain, you can remember job shadowing and your end career goal. Start internships early in your college career. This will give you a leg up in job interviews as you will have invaluable real-world experience.”
So figure out what fires you up, work hard, and pursue a career that lets you do what you love.
To see the original publication, read here: STEM Jobs Publication