This summer, I returned to my hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, and tried my hand in another field of engineering: chemical. A few weeks after returning home, I began work at RSA Corporation, a small chemical plant a quick drive down the highway from my house. For a two months, I was a chemical engineer!
Aside from being a small chemical plant, RSA Corporation acts as an intermediary, producing specialty chemicals and ingredients for larger drug and chemical companies from raw materials produced by another company. RSA employees approximately 40 employees, which are divided between the lab and the plant. I also split time between the lab and the plant. In the lab, I worked as the quality assurance intern. My days began with a calibration of the pH meter and the electric scales. Throughout the day, I would complete different quality assurance tests based upon what chemicals the plant workers needed tested. Using a small sample from the big batch produced in the plant, I would test the chemical’s pH, conductivity, or water content. I became particularly talented at acid-base and silver nitrate titrations, and I also learned how to complete gas chromatography tests. Because many of the products I helped review would eventually form the components of a drug, my boss, Lois, and I ensured that all the products RSA produced were manufactured properly and would not harm any of their intended recipients.
In the chemical plant, I got my hands a little more dirty. In the three-floor facility, there was always something to be done to help complete a reaction, and I was the go-to guy. For example, I often spent my mornings chopping ice for one reaction, and, in the afternoon, I would clean and put together piping for another reaction. One of my bigger projects involved completely taking apart a vacuum pump, fixing the damaged pump, cleaning it, and reinstalling the pump in RSA’s pump house. At the end of the two week project, I was a true grease monkey and had learned how to use a vice grip, pipe wrench, socket wrench, and a variety of other tools.
Working in the plant gave me perspective on the physical side of engineering. In college, engineering is very theoretical, especially outside of research teams. But at RSA, I saw engineering in action. The chemical processes that students learn about were being executed by the plant workers, not for a grade but for a profit.
While I did gain experience working with chemicals and chemical processes over the summer, what did I really learn from my time at RSA Corporation? What skills could I take away from the internship and apply to my work in astronautical engineering? First off, I learned that the work day is long! Spending 8 am to 5 pm doing one thing can become tiresome, especially if I do the same thing every day for several weeks. To avoid “workplace boredom”, I realized that, in the future, I will need to work at an engineering firm or business where I really enjoy both what I do and who I am working with. I enjoyed helping prepare the reactors at RSA and doing quality insurance, but my favorite experiences were in my interactions with my coworkers. The chief safety engineer and a Notre Dame graduate, Chad, would talk smack about USC football, and Drew taught me how to play poker. Wally bought me my first lottery ticket, part of the company’s lottery entry, and Ted told me stories about his father, who served America in World War II. The head chemist Kevin gave me helpful resume and interview advice, and Roy, the emergency foreman, took an interest in my work in astronautics. If I ever do make it to the Moon, I will be sure to bring back moon rocks for Roy and the rest of the RSA Corporation employees.
Students go to college to earn a degree and to prepare themselves for work in a corporation. But students must also prepare themselves for meeting new people and forming lasting relationships with their coworkers. With real world examples, RSA Corporation taught me the importance of hard work and teamwork. Teamwork was not sacrificed for profit, and the family environment encourages employees to get the job done right the first time not for themselves, but the company. When I do graduate from USC, I hope to work for a company with as high morals as RSA Corporation and to enjoy my 8 to 5 days.