Gemma Bowers

Gemma Bowers

Name: Gemma Bowers

Job title: Process Engineer

Company: Amec Foster Wheeler

Country: UK
A-levels: Chemistry, Physics and Maths with mechanics
University: Loughborough University

I had loads of different career ideas when I was growing up. At various points, I remember wanting to be a war correspondent, a lawyer and even join the British Army!

Science and engineering has always interested me from a very young age and by the time I chose my A-levels, I had pretty much made up my mind that I wanted to pursue a career in one of the engineering disciplines.

I discovered chemical engineering when I was looking at university guides. My favourite subject was chemistry and learning that chemical engineers were amongst the best earners in science and engineering helped me to make my choice!

I studied at Loughborough University, UK on a five-year course. There really wasn’t as much chemistry as I had expected but that wasn’t a problem and I still enjoyed the course. It was very hard work but still interesting, particularly the practical and design elements of the course.

A course with variety

You learn such a wide range of things – everything from maths to French to business skills! My course helped me to develop a broad understanding of the disciplines in which a chemical engineer might work.

The maths was a massive step-up in terms of difficulty compared to what I had studied at A-level but because it all applied to the practical nature of what we were doing, I think it made it easier to understand. 

I was surprised at how far-reaching chemical engineering was. A lot of people will think that chemical engineering just means refineries, chemical plants and perhaps pharmaceuticals. But there are lots of novel and niche things going on too, as well as exciting innovative technologies.

I found reaction engineering really interesting and also colloid science where I learnt things that amazed me. Having a good lecturer really helps too and it’s no surprise that the topics you like best are often those with the lecturers you enjoy working with the most.

There were some really tough parts of the course though – devising heat exchanger networks was hard work and everybody struggled with the concept. I just ended up sitting in the library and spending as much time as I could over a two-week period trying to understand it and eventually it clicked. Ironically one of my first Foster Wheeler roles was designing a heat exchanger network so I’m glad I put the work in!

A year in industry

I spent my third year working in industry at the company now known as Lucite International. I worked on their Perspex plant as a site process engineer where I was troubleshooting and working on a range of mini-projects. I got to spend time working on the pilot plant where you get to do everything that you do on a process plant, just on a smaller scale.

The year in industry helped me decide what aspects of chemical engineering interested me most. I knew that working on the same site every day was not for me and that’s how I ended up looking into the contracting sector. I was already familiar with Amec Foster Wheeler so I was really pleased when I was offered a job with the company in 2004.

Working in Australia

Highlights so far include being able to travel to North-West Australia, working on one of the company’s first liquefied natural gas projects in that area. I spent two years there working as a field project engineer and that gave me the chance to do a little bit of everything, see a real project in the flesh and really develop my engineering skills.

I have also worked in a range of other roles and groups within my company, including safety and environmental, process design and project estimating.

I am currently working in process design and I enjoy the variety my role offers. Having led a team of people on a project, I now know that I’d like to go down the people management route, rather than becoming a technical specialist. I decided to develop these skills by joining the Territorial Army and my company have been great in supporting me in this.

I’d recommend studying chemical engineering if you enjoy science and maths and if you’re looking to keep your career options open. Chemical engineering graduates go into all sorts of different roles and sectors and are very much in-demand.