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AIChE Northeast Regional Conference

April 1, 2015

About Me 

Thomas Nigl is a 4th year Chemical Engineering major from Quincy, MA. He was the co-chair of the 2015 AIChE Northeast Regional Conference. He currently works at a liquid metal battery company, AMBRI, for his third and final co-op. He is also co-captain of Northeastern’s Chem-E-Car team.

Chem-E-Car

One evening during my freshman year, I walked around a crowded ballroom filled with booths for clubs and teams. Poster boards displayed colorful photos of explosive chemical reactions, concrete canoes, and speeding cars. As I meandered around, my eyes were drawn to one display. The activity, Chem-E-Car, is a competition in which the team built a shoebox sized car powered by chemical reactions. I was a member of my high school’s FIRST Robotics team. Naturally, when I found a team involving competitive small vehicle engineering related to my major, I jumped on the opportunity.

After a few meetings, however, my interest diminished. We were asked to brainstorm reactions for the car. With only basic knowledge of the competition and the car and no earlier examples to work with, I felt like a drowning man without a life preserver. There wasn’t much structure or a guiding path on designs were possible. I didn’t attend another meeting until the following fall semester.

They're basically the same thing, right? 

 

The moment that seized my interest and cemented my dedication to the team was my first competition. The team advanced to the national competition, held in Pittsburgh that November. As I attended more meetings and helped out with the car, I was invited to go to the competition. While perusing the teams’ posters and how their cars operated, I was inspired by the different mechanisms used in competition. Between my fascinations, nights of team bonding, and hotel shenanigans, I was hooked on Chem-E-Car. I thought only of returning to the UO Lab to start working on a new car idea.

This past year, when I took over the team with my co-captain, I internalized the struggles I had when I first joined the team. I worked to mitigate confusion over the goals of the team and the paths to achieve them. The first meeting of the semester started with pizza and a general explanation of the competition and what we did previously. Soon after, we held a Lego car competition! Groups of kids who just met were now building Lego cars in the spirit of competition to see who could get their car to travel the farthest distance. This eliminated the unfamiliarity of new people through teamwork and created excitement for the future challenge through a similar initial challenge. We slowly gathered members through team building and small amounts of external research to bring back each week. With this approach, new members had an incentive to return without being deterred by hanging out with “strangers” instead of their familiar friends. Soon the team had doubled in size within a few months! Freshmen and sophomores stepped up to leadership roles within the team. By the time the competition arrived this March, the freshmen and sophomores were weighing out powders, building up pressure, and operating the cars on the competition field. 

Who thought these new guys would graduate
from using Legos to hydrogen gas in only a few months?

 

As co-captain, seeing such a fervor instilled in these students who joined a few months prior was inspiring. One night, I overheard a few members discussing getting back into the lab and improving our reactions. In that moment, I knew the kids caught the same bug of enthusiasm I caught a few years prior.

AIChE Northeast Regional Conference

As a result of my involvement with Chem-E-Car and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers chapter (AIChE) on campus, I was entrusted with the position of co-chair of the Northeastern Regional conference. I had been to two regional conferences before with Chem-E-Car, but I didn’t know how the conference ran as a whole. I knew the coming months would be quite the ride.

During the first month, I had to catch up on the earlier planning and the upcoming action items. At first, there were a few large areas that required attention and with the committee’s help, it would be smooth sailing. But, as time passed, so did the number of tasks that required our attention. 90% of the time spent planning a project or event is not spent on the overhead goals, but execution of the details. With the number of events planned for the conference, the weight of stress on my shoulders was heavy. I spent a majority of my days after work sending emails to a myriad of contacts involving each detail.

One evening, I was speaking with one of my friends in Chem-E-Car about how overwhelmed I felt. He asked, “Why are you doing anything yourself?” In a moment of exasperation, I snapped, “Why else? It needs to get done!” He explained that I should not be the one dealing with the details. It is the committee members’ jobs. In catching up on the minutiae of the conference planning, I became inefficient in my leadership and didn’t use the resources at my disposal. It took one of my friends, an outside pair of eyes, to see the problem. In any complex situation, have a confidant (or three). They help you see where you can make improvements that aren’t obvious to you who is in the thick of it.

After this, I limited the attendees of the committee meetings. Each subcommittee met during the week before the main committee meeting. Then each subcommittee head would report to the main meeting and report the actions taken over the previous week. We addressed any problems and discussed the required actions for the upcoming week. This freed up time I now used to oversee the conference as a whole. Delegation of tasks is vital. As a friend once told me, “If you’re getting your hands dirty, you haven’t delegated enough tasks.” 

And there were definitely enough tasks to go around!

As the conference got closer, one aspect of the planning committee was lagging far behind. The conference is operated using only corporate and academic sponsorship. With one month left before the conference, Northeastern was still multiple thousands of dollars in the red. We were working furiously, making numerous phone calls, emails, and in-person visits, but receiving little to no recompense for our efforts. One day I was sitting at work talking with one of my co-workers and she asked me, “Have you talked to Professor Webster? I’m sure he’d be willing to help.” There was the assumption we had already talked to him before. I figured there was no harm in asking again. I sent him an email at that moment. A few minutes later, we were discussing not only how to raise funds for the conference, but also how to promote it further with outside help. Don’t be afraid to reach out. There can be inherent fear in asking others for help, especially those of higher authority. These people, however, have been in similar situations. They are able to empathize. If they can’t help you, they will get you the help required, as they either received that same help or want to give the help they never received.

After the conference started, the whole event was a blur. At that point, speaking in front of 400 people felt a lot less nerve wracking considering the other 20 events soon to occur. In a whirlwind of poster presentations, career fairs, paper competitions, lab tours, workshops, and Chem-E-Car competitions, the effort my committee members and I put in paid off. Sure, there were moments no one could have planned for. Who would’ve thought half of the attendees would be late because of Daylight Savings Time? As long as you adapt to the situation quickly and decisively, the smaller details will work themselves out.

The faces of long days and longer nights


At the end of the conference, I was inspired by the keynote speaker. Instead of anything I may have prepared, I scribbled furiously on the back of a Rebecca’s napkin my thoughts. As she mentioned cycles of learning and returning to recurring ideas, it made me reflect on the conference and Chem-E-Car as a whole. I realized that the actions I took in both semesters to lay the ground work for both the team and the committee had inspired them. There were team members who, despite every failure, kept talking about getting back in the lab and working with new microbes to make better fuel cells. There were committee members who spent hundreds of printing dollars and hours of time curating, designing, and folding brochures for over 400 tourists. Seeing these kids work so hard inspired me to work harder so I could help them achieve their goals. We created a positive feedback loop of inspiration. If nothing else has come out of this year, I hope that the inspiration to strive for creativity, discovery, and perseverance is strong in the people I’ve worked with. I hope they take their gifts and the tools they’ve discovered and run so fast with them their feet don’t touch the ground.