STEM & GEMS: CB&I’s Katie Balko engineers her future

Editor’s Note: As part of our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) program, we conduct interviews with women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. This week, we’re featuring Katie Balko, Process Engineer at CB&I.HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Balko: Growing up, I switched what I wanted to be when I grew up almost every year. I wanted to be a teacher, then I read a book on dolphins and wanted to be a marine biologist. I liked to draw and decided I was going to be like my favorite author and write and illustrate my own books.

Math had always come easy for me. And after reading another book in high school, I decided I was going to be a physical therapist. All that changed when I took a chemistry class. I loved it. Even though I was already accepted to college for physical therapy, I decided to take a chance and on the last day of admissions, I applied to another college for chemical engineering and got in. I took my love of chemistry with the fact that I was good at math and found the right degree for me in engineering.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Balko: My chemistry teacher my senior year of high school really helped me realize that I liked chemistry. She worked with me on what would be tested in college and prepared me for what the classes would be like. It was hard, I studied every night, but it paid off in the long run.

HMNS: What was your favorite class when you were in school?
Balko: My favorite class (and lab) was Organic Chemistry. It is most people’s least favorite and I understand why. It’s tough. It was tough for me, too, but I also saw it as a puzzle with a specific set of rules. When I thought in terms of a puzzle, it made it easier. The lab was also cool because you were making things you see and hear about every day — like separating out caffeine.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Balko: Right now, I am process (chemical) engineer at CB&I, an engineering and construction company. I work for their gas processing group. I design plants that take all the “bad things” out of gas so it can be used cleanly.

I have also been switching over into a sales role over the past year. I think it’s important to keep growing in your career and I find this part of the business interesting. I also want to keep building on my degree as an engineer to do bigger and better things.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Balko: I joined on as a rotational engineer, so I got to experience a lot of different jobs in the company from chemical engineering to marketing. Through the different roles, I was able to network with a lot of people. I think the best part is having the opportunity to take a background in engineering and apply it to different roles.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Balko: Last year, I traveled a lot — both for work and for fun! This year looks to be about the same and I love it. I’m not a big movie or TV person but I love to read and to draw. I also like to stay active. I’ve been doing yoga consistently for five years, and last year I started doing CrossFit.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career? 
Balko: It’s worth it if it interests you. It will be hard, but the rewards are great. Use whatever resources you have. In college, I had a very good study group that helped push me through projects and exams. I utilized all of my teachers’ and TAs’ office hours and even had a tutor who helped get me through a hard math course.

Ask questions and don’t stop learning. Most people want to see you succeed but they won’t know you don’t understand something unless you ask them.

Volunteer. Volunteer to be the project lead in college. It might be scary and hard but you’ll figure it out and learn a lot in the process. Lead your team to help everyone succeed.         

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Balko: There are more men than women in STEM careers. Events like GEMS get girls exposed to successful women in math and science, which helps to bring awareness to their potential and knowledge about those careers.

More about Katie Balko:
Katie Balko grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. She has two younger sisters and a younger brother, and was a Girl Scout for nine years. In high school, she was on the swim, soccer and lacrosse teams. She went to Penn State University where she earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. After graduating, Balko decided to move out of state and found herself in Texas. She has now lived in Houston for six years.

HMC SWE Rosie tattoo

Click this image to go to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) website.

STEM & GEMS: Insects and plants fascinate “bug nerd” Lauren Williamson

lauren photo in CBCEditor’s Note: As part of our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) program we conduct interviews with women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. This week, we’re featuring Lauren Williamson, Entomologist in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science?
Williamson: Ever since I can remember! I was always catching bugs, playing with animals, and looking at flowers, plants, etc.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Williamson: I had a biology teacher in junior high that told me about entomology and told me that I should look into that field for a career since I had such an interest in insects.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Williamson: An insect collection, of course!

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Williamson: My title is “entomologist”, aka “bug nerd.” My job revolves around importing exotic butterflies to display in our Butterfly Center. Not only do I need to know a lot about insects, but I also need to know about government regulations, computer applications, and accounting. We also do a lot of outreach programs, so it’s a necessity to be comfortable presenting to large groups.

To get a degree in entomology you have to take extensive coursework in biology, chemistry, physiology, and math.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Williamson: I play with butterflies all day — need I say more? Not to say that my job doesn’t involve a lot of hard work, because it does, but the fun parts of my job make it all worth it!

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Williamson: I love to play with my animals (three dogs: Merle, Hank, and Molly; and a bird: Carlos), go on insect collecting trips, camping, crafts, going to museums and seeing movies with my husband.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Williamson:
Make sure you study, study, study! Ask a lot of questions and learn all of the material as much as possible. Every year adds more information to the knowledge base you already have, so it only gets harder.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Williamson: This is a great way to experience some of the wonderful career paths you can take with a firm knowledge of science, engineering, technology, and math. These subjects are the foundation of our everyday lives, whether you realize it or not! There will always be a demand for employees in these ever-growing and changing fields so it is important to get in an interest in them as soon as possible.

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STEM & GEMS, Part III: Air Liquide’s Megan Morrison has always wanted to defy the laws of physics

Editor’s Note: In anticipation of our upcoming GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event on Feb. 8, we interviewed several women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. So far, we’ve interviewed Air Liquide’s Victoria Rockwell and HMNS’ Celeste Poorte.This week, we’re featuring Megan Morrison, a Biological Engineer at Air Liquide.

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, and/or math?
Morrison: A child doesn’t have to ask questions about calculus or chemical equations to show interest in STEM topics. It may seem like a silly question to ask, “How hard would I have to jump in the air to never come back down?” but kids are really asking what their escape velocity is –— which is something some engineers and rocket scientists have to think about every day.

I believe I first demonstrated interest when I said my first word. As a child, I was very interested in things that seemed to defy the laws of physics. My first word was “balloon.”

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Morrison: My middle school math teacher Mr. Fischer coached our MATHCOUNTS team. He inspired our team so much that we practiced before school every day, during lunch, during free period, and after school on Wednesdays. He showed us that hard work paid off, how to understand the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on your team, and how to utilize that understanding to achieve great things.

HMNS:  What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Morrison: My favorite project is a bit biased, because it also got me a pet on the weekends. In 7th grade, we raised two rats — which, being 7th graders at the end of the 90s, we named Jay and Silent Bob. We fed one water and oatmeal, and gave the other not only water and oatmeal, but whole milk, fruits, and vegetables. We watched as one grew much more quickly than the other for a few weeks while learning about nutrition and cellular respiration, or how the body uses food to grow and make energy. Don’t worry, after a few weeks, we fed both of them equally and they led full rat lives.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Morrison: I work as a biological engineer in Air Liquide’s ALLEX program. This two-year program sends recent college graduates all over the country (and sends some around the world) to experience different jobs in different work environments so that they can be better workers when they graduate from the program.

My company separates the air into basic components and sells purified oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases. Some of these gases are so cold that they are even sold in liquid form. My company has to understand the scientific properties of the substances they sell to be able to manufacture them safely. We use engineering and technology to design the most efficient equipment, and we use math in everything.

HMNS:  What’s the best part of your job?
Morrison: I am currently working in the cosmetics manufacturing section of business development. So, the best part about my job is that I get to apply scientific concepts to things like the chemical and physical properties of beauty products.

HMNS:  What do you like to do in your spare time?
Morrison: In my spare time, I like to see plays and musicals, golf, and volunteer in my community.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Morrison: My advice is to get started early. Join math and science teams at school. Do experiments at home. Watch documentaries, ask questions, and use all of the resources you have to get the answers. The most successful people in STEM careers enjoy STEM concepts at home too.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science)?
Morrison: For society and technology to progress, we must have the best workers in the work force, regardless of their gender. I think it is important to show underrepresented demographics what STEM fields have to offer so that they can lead fulfilling lives and make the world a better place.

Know a girl who’s interested in math and science? Come to GEMS (Girls Exploring Math & Science) on Sat., Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Museum will be filled with hands-on science and math for everyone to experience. Local professionals will be at the Museum to answer questions about their careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. Click here for $7 admission to all permanent exhibit halls on Sat., Feb. 8.

STEM & GEMS, Part II: The science of raising butterflies is Celeste Poorte’s specialty

Celeste PoorteEditor’s Note: In anticipation of our upcoming GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event on Feb. 8, we interviewed several women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. Last week, we interviewed Air Liquide’s Victoria Rockwell. This week we’re featuring Celeste Poorte, Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: As far back as I remember, I was always interested in the natural world. Once I got to high school, my interest in science really became solidified.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Poorte: 
Spending a lot time outside as a young child exposed me to interesting plant and animal life. In 9th grade I had a wonderful biology teacher that really inspired me to pursue biology.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Poorte: 
In 9th grade we did a project where we observed the micro-organisms found in a collection of pond of water and recorded our results and identified the species. That was my favorite because it was incredible to see how many living creatures there were in a tiny speck of water.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: 
I am the Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This relates to science because I use my knowledge of butterflies and their life cycles in order to raise them.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Poorte: 
The best part of my job is that I don’t have to spend my time at a computer all day. I get to spend a lot of time outside in the greenhouses working directly with the butterflies and caterpillars.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Poorte: 
In my spare time I like to spend time with friends, read books, and take my dog to the dog park.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Poorte: 
Go to college. Aim high. Pick a subject that you are passionate about for your major and stick with it. Get as much extra experience outside the classroom as you can, like internships. Meet and talk to as many people in your field of interest as you can while you are still in school. This will definitely help you find a job once you get your degree.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Poorte:
An event like GEMS is a great way to expose girls to jobs that they might not otherwise even know existed. It’s a great way to get the information out and for them to meet real-life women who actually have STEM careers. When I was in middle school, I attended a GEMS-like event and it was a great experience for me.