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Jessica Olstad

Profession/Title: Engineer- Integrated Catalytic Processes

Business/Company Name: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

Date of Interview: 11/5/20


        This interview was conducted with Jessica Olstad, a research engineer focusing on integrated catalytic processes at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Ms. Olstad works with a small team to test products that can be used to break down biomass into more usable products that can then be converted into energy. This particular job title/ description interests me greatly and I was very excited to converse with someone that had done this with their career. 

        One of the first questions that I asked Ms. Olstad was how she decided to enter a more research oriented field after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in chemical and biochemical engineering from Colorado School of Mines. She explained that through much of her college career she did not really know what she wanted to do with her life, so she turned to internships in order to try and gain some experience and figure out what truly interested her. Ms. Olstad got an internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) while she was still in college and was able to turn that experience into a career. Through this, she encouraged me to look into internships very early while in college as it helped her figure out where she wanted to go and what she was truly interested in. I have always heard from colleges and students that internships are very important because they are needed to pad a resume when looking for that first job,but I had never considered that they might be a great way to find your niche with so many career options. I think this piece of advice will definitely encourage me to pursue those opportunities in college because, who knows, maybe a summer internship will foray into a fantastic and interesting career. 

        I have interviewed a couple of other chemical engineers already and I really wanted to gain a better understanding of the different specializations and work environments of the multitude of career paths. I asked Ms. Olstad what her daily tasks included, how many people she typically works with, and how long her projects last. She explained that on a daily basis she tests multiple calaysts and reactants in a cracking unit which takes large molecules and breaks them down into smaller more usable products. She typically works with four to five people within her team but contacts many more within the company. The projects that Ms. Olstad works can range from a couple of days to a couple of weeks to a couple of months all depending on the complexity of the project and the difficulty associated with reaching the desired outcome. This timeframe is actually in between the timeframe that other chemical engineers have given me for their projects. I find this very interesting as it shows the multitude of different career options that chemical engineers have further cementing my decision to pursue this field. I also think having that variance in the time it takes to complete a project, would be quite stimulating for me as things would constantly be changing and I could find myself working on a new project at any given moment. 

        We also talked a little bit about Ms. Olstad’s experience at Colorado School of Mines where she received her undergraduate degree. Mines is definitely a school that I am interested in and am always yearning to learn more from people who have attended that university. I think the biggest thing that stood out to me from our talk was the way in which Ms. Olstad described how the degree is a combination of engineering and problem solving. She gave me an example of a problem they worked on where they had to paint a garage door, but they were taught how to factor in the weight of the paint, the amount of coats, the composition, etc. in order to solve the problem in a more real world application kind of way. This is definitely something that I feel can be lacking from my education at times simply because we are taught to work a problem and not always think about the outcome. When thinking more about this “degree in problem solving” I realized the value that it would have on my ability to be successful in my career. 

        Overall, this was an extremely interesting and successful interview. I feel like I learned a lot about chemical engineering and really connected with this professional. I think one of the things that stood out to me the most about this interview and this professional was her interests in me and the work that I was doing through this course. Ms. Olstad had taken the time to look through my digital portfolio and even read over my original work. She actually gave me advice on how to proceed with finding the fabrics that I am looking for in order to create the product for  my original work. I really appreciated that she took the time to get to know me and I felt like we had a very good and meaningful conversation instead of just a professional interview. I look forward to continuing my original work with her tips and looking for ways to incorporate the advice she gave me.

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