By Katharine Webster
For Minh Pham ’22, a chemical engineering major from Vietnam, working as a quality engineering co-op student at a company that makes tiny components for medical devices was a game-changer.
It catapulted her from student to professional in six months—and helped her get a job offer well before graduation, she says. Pham is now working as a validation engineer at the Irvine, California, office of Barry-Wehmiller Design Group.
“They asked me a lot about my co-op during the interview,” she says. “I got my job offer a little after Christmas, so that was a present for me.”
Before the co-op at Resonetics in Nashua, New Hampshire, Pham says, she had “zero experience. I didn’t even know what a quality engineer was.”
Resonetics welcomed her and gave her a lot of support. But it became trial by fire when, only three months into her co-op in 2021, her supervisor broke his femur and was laid up for two months, leaving Pham in charge of a big project for a major client. It was stressful, she says, but it accelerated the pace of her learning as she oversaw the entire manufacturing process from raw materials to finished product.
“I realized that the answer is not always in the book,” Pham says. “In class, I can see the machines working based on certain equations, but in the real world, there are so many deviations and variations that it requires more problem-solving and critical thinking skills.”
The Chemical Engineering Department launched a full-scale co-op program during the 2013-14 academic year, says Assoc. Teaching Prof. Eric Maase, who oversees the program. The effort included offering required classes more than once a year, including during the summer, so that students who stepped away from school for six months could stay on track for their degrees, he says.
Assoc. Teaching Prof. Glenn Dissinger, who works with Maase to support the co-op program and oversee the yearlong capstone class for seniors, says that the region’s bustling pharmaceutical, biotech, biomedical engineering, food processing and electronics industries offer a lot of opportunities for paid experience.
Dissinger says that students who go on co-ops not only learn new skills but also return as better students, in part because they have a clearer idea of what kind of jobs they want to pursue.
“A lot will find something they really love to do—and in a few cases, they may have done something they thought they really wanted to do and now they’re not so sure,” he says.
Most students do co-ops during their junior year because they are required to complete a yearlong capstone class as seniors, when they work in teams to design a chemical plant. Although New England does not have large petrochemical plants or refineries, the capstone teaches them about all the steps in a chemical engineering process, a skill that translates to multiple industries, Dissinger says.
“They get exposed on campus to working in the lab, and when they actually go out into industry, they often realize they want to do something more around process automation or development,” he says.
St. Cyr, who pursued the biological engineering option within the chemical engineering major, worked in a support role with the engineering team for Prevnar, a vaccine against bacteria that can cause pneumococcal pneumonia. As a member of the tech team for the operations and materials used to produce Prevnar, she investigated and resolved manufacturing issues and checked on the chemical ingredients.
In the process, she learned soft skills, including how to talk to people in different jobs—and how to network. Her manager gave her the freedom to seek out projects that interested her so she could learn about various roles. It did not hurt that many of the Pfizer engineers she met were UML alumni.
“I’m a pretty reserved person, and my manager was pretty focused on getting me outside of that box, and now I’m more comfortable speaking up at work,” she says. “That’s important, because I want to work in management.”
Back on campus, St. Cyr took on the role of project manager for her senior capstone team while continuing to work part time at Pfizer. There, her co-op manager helped her find a full-time job in a different group after graduation. She is continuing to work in operations support while she pursues a master’s degree through UML’s bachelor’s-to-master’s program.
“It’s a different group with new people, a new product and a new process to learn, but the same super-nice company culture, which is important to me,” she says.
Michael Baltayan ’22 learned about the importance of company culture, too.
His first co-op with an electronics company, which began in January 2020, fizzled when the COVID-19 pandemic began, sending everyone into lockdown. The following year, a friend suggested that Baltayan apply for a co-op at Uniqure, a Dutch gene therapy company with facilities in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the friend was having a great experience.
At that co-op, Baltayan wrote technical documentation for a gene therapy in development, monitored equipment remotely and did troubleshooting on the machines used in the manufacturing process. That inspired him to switch from a general chemical engineering degree to the biological engineering option.
It also taught him what he values most in a job: working with colleagues who communicate well and treat him as a member of the team. “It was pretty cool. The people there were so nice to me,” he says. “I realized that company culture is more important to me than the work itself.”
Baltayan is now studying for a master’s degree in chemical engineering through UML’s bachelor’s-to-master’s program, while considering a range of job opportunities. “I want to keep exploring chemical engineering topics,” he says.