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Fellowship Down Under Turns Researcher Into Writer

Chemical Engineering Progress | 21 July 2007

Boonsri Dickinson, who served an internship at COSMOS magazine that got her started as a science writer
Boonsri Dickinson, who served an internship at COSMOS magazine that got her started as a science writer

By Josephine DeMichele

THE CHOICE between putting on a hardhat or goggles and a lab coat can be grueling. Like other engineers, Boonsri Dickinson had to decide whether to work in industry or go to graduate school after she received her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Florida in 2005.

Being an academic aficionado. Dickinson settled on graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, swayed by the city's beauty and the possibility of spending five more years in college. After receiving her diploma, she drove three days through New Orleans and Kansas City to her new home in the Midwest.

Not far into her first semester, she began to doubt her decision to pursue an advanced degree in chemical engineering. But by late spring 2006. as the workload lightened, her outlook brightened. One of her classes captured her interest by emphasizing the growing importance of particle mixing in drug manufacturing. She had always been intrigued by the versatile behavior of solids - the sudden onrush of avalanches, and the way water turned piles of sand into towering sandcastles. Soon, she selected particle technology as the subject of her research.

At the AIChH 2006 Spring National Meeting and Fifth World Congress on Particle Technology (held in Orlando, Florida in April 2006), she met Dr Aibing Yu, professor and director of the Centre for Simulation and Modeling of Paniculate Systems at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She discussed the possibility of collaborating with his research group, and when she was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship later that month, her plans for what would turn out to be a life-changing summer research project in Australia were finalised.

She noticed some striking differences between her group in Colorado and Yu's team (her host's group in Australia). Yu's team was five times larger, and consisted of more than 30 Chinese and Indian male students. The majority of their projects were funded by the mining industry, whereas hers was funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Their program was shorter than hers - and because they were not required to take additional coursework, they were able to dive into their research on the first day and [usually] graduate in under four years.

The international collaboration in Sydney certainly broadened Dickinson's knowledge of particle technology. But it also made her realize she did not have to continue her research to enjoy her true passion - writing. One evening, while attending a talk by the world-renowned primatologist, Dr Jane Goodall, she was filled with hope for fulfillment of her dreams.

"Sometimes you have to dare to live your dreams." said Goodall's tour manager. Alicia Kennedy. "We take some risk, but I believe that if you follow your heart's desires, your passions in life and work, you will find joy and success," she said. That heart-to-heart advice inspired Dickinson to drop the more than six years' of chemical engineering training to pursue her dream of becoming a science writer.

"I would have never imagined that the dream would come true in a matter of days. Handed an internship at a Sydney-based science magazine, COSMOS. Although the learning curve of writing news articles progressed slower than I would have liked. I discovered a job for which I clocked more than 100 h/week - with no pay - and absolutely enjoyed. That's when you know you have found what you love!" Dickinson says.

Dickinson is living proof that a degree in chemical engineering does not dictate the pursuit of a traditional career path. "You have the technical background, but people skills - like communication and teamwork are just as important because they are transferable from industry to industry," she notes. "You shouldn't have to change yourself in order to succeed. Just be yourself," she adds. "And, remember to have fun!"

During this sometimes difficult transition, Dickinson received valuable support from AIChE's Young Professional Advisory Board (YPAB). She became involved with the group after meeting its chair, Brian Daly, at the Orlando conference. Daly says young engineers tend to center their network around their own companies and school, and colleagues they know from school or the workplace, and as a result, they disconnect from the broad base of the chemical engineering discipline. "YPAB is the place where young engineers can meet other young engineers to broaden their social and professional circle." Daly says.

At the AIChE Annual Meeting in San Francisco in November 2006, YPAB proved to be Dickinson's passport to meeting important people. At the committee meetings, she shook hands with the authors of textbooks that kept her up late many nights, as well as with the executive managers and key researchers who made national news headlines.

Dickinson recently accepted a six-month internship at Discover magazine, based in New York City. She has also written several news articles for CEP, and hopes to remain a regular contributor.

She keeps in touch with Kennedy, who recently told her that "life is like a stream, and we can get caught in different currents along the way. If you feel you are swimming against the current, and it is taking too much effort, exhausting your body and spirit, then perhaps you are going in the wrong direction. Allow yourself to go with the current that flows best."


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