Quest for a greener future: my journey in chemical and biological engineering and beyond

“Your degree is only as awesome as you allow it to be—take as many opportunities as possible to prototype what you enjoy doing over this adventure.”

UBC CHBE Student Amelia Dai
Amelia among the cherry blossoms on Lower Mall. Image credit: Thanky To

Amelia Dai

I am a graduating Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE) student. My professional interests include renewable energy, process optimization, and exploring what makes a great team. Between my study terms, I sought opportunities to explore the roles of energy and engineering in society from different perspectives, leading me to 36 months of internships ranging from lab-scale to manufacturing-scale, from academia to industry, and from electrical utility to multinational corporations. I loved the research experiences the best (with Dr. David Wilkinson’s group in CHBE and the Cell Development Lab at Tesla), which guided me to pursue graduate studies. I will be starting my PhD in ChemE at MIT in the coming fall.

Outside of class, I have had the pleasure of volunteering with the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS), Women in Engineering (WiE), and the CHBE community during my time at UBC. Some of my favourite experiences include organizing Week E^0 (welcoming first-year engineering students), facilitating the WiE mentorship program for girls in high school during COVID, and making liquid-nitrogen ice cream for CHBE events. In my free time, I enjoy reading, painting, exploring new places and food, appreciating nature and cute animals.

Why did you choose to study Chemical and Biological Engineering?

My story with UBC began with Shad, as a grade 11 student from New Brunswick. Travelling across the country for this month-long STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) and leadership program was the best experience for my life.  I found my core values in lifelong learning and community building, and gained a deeper understanding of what engineering is - applying science to solve real-world problems. Combining these new learnings, I established my interest in renewable energy. Research in this area involves both chemical and biological approaches.

When it came time for me to make a decision on my undergraduate program, UBC stood out as it offered a Chemical and Biological Engineering degree, while most schools offer Chemical or Biological only. Having interacted with student and faculty members from UBC Engineering during Shad, I was also especially eager to become part of this wonderful and welcoming community.

Other factors that helped sway my decision include the wonderful cultural diversity in Vancouver, the breathtaking nature in the area, and the emphasis on sustainability both at the university and in the city at large. CHBE at UBC was the perfect fit for my personality and professional interests.

Chemical and Biological Engineering

8 things that made my time at UBC memorable:

  • The vibrant engineering spirit: “we are, we are, we are the engineers!”
  • Engineering Undergraduate Society: my home away from home. 
  • Friends: my family away from home. 
  • Mentors: thank you for supporting me to accomplish more than what I could have imagined. 
  • The beautiful campus: a variety of gardens, museums, galleries, and patches of nature within walking distance. 
  • Sunrise and sunset views: from a tall building or a beach, to get that mountain and ocean view. 
  • Flowers: especially the cherry blossoms on Lower Mall. 
  • Dogs: so many cute floofers walk and sprint and hop along Main Mall with their hoomans. 

What advice would you give a prospective engineering student?

Your degree is only as awesome as you allow it to be. CHBE is a very versatile degree: The knowledge we gain in class is applicable in chemical and commodities production, renewable energy, water, food, oil & gas. We can also work across lab, pilot, and manufacture scale projects.

Some career options may overlap with other disciplines. Process engineers in a production setting could come from CHBE/MECH/MANU backgrounds. Environmental assessment folks might hold CHBE/ENVL/MINE/CIVL degrees. Biotech companies could hire CHBE/BME/biology/chemistry grads. These are just a few examples, and people can get additional experience from student teams and internships. Some of my friends leveraged their skills gained in CHBE and transferred them to careers in project management, data science, business consulting, medicine, and UX/UI design.

For me, I was not only able to develop a solid foundation in the core CHBE subjects (e.g. chemistry, bioprocess, thermodynamics, transport phenomena, reactor design, and process control), but also gained knowledge in material science, programming, data science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering in class and through my internships.

I would encourage everyone to take as many opportunities as possible to prototype what you enjoy doing during your time here.

AmeliaDai 2023 Imagine Day

How would you describe the CHBE community? 

The CHBE community is very welcoming and supportive. We have lots of staff and faculty who really care for the students (Marlene, Dr. Potvin, Dr. Verrett to name a few—I’ll leave some suspense for you to figure out more once you join). Some classes are tough, but students who chose to join CHBE with enthusiasm generally enjoy and bond while struggling together.

The program has lots of group-based courses and projects, so it offers plenty of opportunities for us to figure out what kind of team and people we each enjoy working with. The TAs and professors are very generous to offer support during office hours. They are often experts in the field, so they are more than happy to answer questions even if they might be beyond the scope of the course. CHBE Undergraduate Council runs a mentorship program that pairs students new to the program with upper-year buddies to answer any questions about courses, co-ops, extra-curricular, and chat about life in general.

Fellow students and alumni are also very willing to offer referrals and/or coffee chats for job opportunities. I have created lasting bonds with many in the program throughout my journey here.

Amelia Dai poses with her Iron Ring

Where do you find your inspiration for using your degree to make an impact on our world?

I find inspiration from my family, friends, mentors, as well as history and nature.

My parents are both avid learners who encourage me to stay curious, seeking out answers to a wide range of questions. My friends help to provide different perspectives when I face a challenge, and it’s also always a joy to celebrate each others’ accomplishments.

The compassionate EUS volunteers have inspired me to become involved in the community since Imagine Day.

I’ve had the pleasure of receiving guidance and support from stellar mentors who inspire me to cherish learning in every experience. Women and visible minorities in engineering inspire me to stay true to myself, appreciate diversity, and find confidence in what we each have to share. I’ve also found patterns in history and nature to be inspiring for engineering effective and elegant solutions.

What are some contributions you would like to make when it comes to the future of work in your field?

For my next steps, I intend to pursue research in renewable energy. My experience so far has led me toward electrochemistry and system optimization. In the meantime, I am volunteering with Volta Foundation as a JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity) Project Director, helping to improve the accessibility of opportunities for all in the battery industry.

Ultimately, I hope to work with leaders across disciplines and cultures to address the global energy challenges holistically.

Find me on: LinkedIn

Student in a lab holding a mini Erlenmeyer flask.

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