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.