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A Non-linear Road Towards A Chemical Engineering Ph.D.

Valued Contributor III
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By Heather LeClerc, 2020 Heh-Won Chang Ph.D. Fellowship in Green Chemistry Winner

With the current pandemic upon us, I have had time to sit back and think about my journey towards becoming a chemical engineering Ph.D. student. As I sit here and write this in my childhood home, I am reminded of why I became passionate about green chemistry in the first place.

I grew up in Connecticut, and oddly enough, my backyard is full of life. I realized my passion for chemistry in high school when I took my first chemistry class and fell in love. But it wasn’t for another year until I needed a class and settled on environmental science that I truly discovered what I wanted to do - find the bridge between the chemistry I already loved and the new-found love of environmental science. This led me to earn a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Chemistry from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.

Growing up, I was the person who knew what they wanted and always said that I wanted to work in renewable energy; yet my path to get here was not linear. During my senior year, after spending months writing up and submitting applications for chemistry Ph.D. programs, I began to doubt if it would lead me towards my dream. All the projects I saw didn’t excite me as much as I thought they would. So, on a whim, after most deadlines had passed, I decided to apply for the master’s program in chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA.

 I was overjoyed to find out that I had been accepted but worried about choosing a program I had to pay for and would put me into debt over one of the fully funded programs I was accepted into. Upon speaking with professors at WPI, however, I learned of a partially funded master’s project in the pharmaceutical area and accepted it.

Graduate Research Focus

I learned more than I could have ever hoped from this project, and it served to catch me up to speed on a lot of the chemical engineering principles I lacked, but it did not excite me the way that renewable energy always has. So, when I was asked if I would like to become a Ph.D. student with the opportunity to switch to a project converting waste to energy, I jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back!

Now, I have the chance to take a common waste and understand the chemistry necessary to convert it into usable, high-quality energy products. I am constantly learning something new, collaborating with new people, and loving what I do. 

Career Advice

My advice to you is to follow your dreams and not get discouraged if things do not go as planned. Every person’s journey looks different. Do not be afraid to ask for help. College and graduate school are different in many ways and you should not be scared to reach out for assistance whether it is for classes or mental health.

For me, this difficult journey has been extremely worth-while and I am so thankful for everyone along the way who continues to help make it happen. No matter the major or path you choose, you will end up where you are supposed to be. Thank you to the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute® for the opportunity to write this as well as share my passion at this year’s Green Chemistry & Engineering Virtual Conference.

Heather LeClerc is a doctoral candidate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA.