Richmond, Virginia native Phil Johnson is a junior chemical engineering major at the University of Kentucky. Undecided about his major when he arrived at UK, Phil has since found his passion in chemical engineering. He has enjoyed opportunities to work in a research laboratory, even as an undergraduate student. Phil plans to continue his studies as a graduate student after he earns his bachelor’s degree.
How did you decide which STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) field was right for you?
My first semester at UK, I was open to anything, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I chose undergraduate studies. My priority was to make an informed decision about my major so it would be enjoyable and offer long-term job security. I took a range of courses, which included an introductory chemistry course. Through a combination of the professor’s teaching style and my subsequent passion for reading about chemistry, I soon found that I really wanted chemistry to be a significant part of my life. Of all the classes I took that year, it seemed like chemistry was the most important thing for me to learn. I ended up going with chemical engineering instead of chemistry for my actual major because I became really interested in process engineering, process design and power generation.
Why did you choose to participate in undergraduate research at UK?
I took a process principles course taught by chemical engineering professor Dr. Zach Hilt my freshman year. One day, I was going to his office to ask a question related to that class, but because the building layout is confusing, I accidentally got off on the wrong floor. However, I ended up walking past a poster outside one of his laboratories describing the lab’s research into environmental remediation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). I knew PCBs were a growing problem, but didn’t know much beyond that. At that time in my life I was gravitating toward helping others and being of service to people. The experiences that were most fulfilling came from doing something positive for society. This seemed like an incredible opportunity to see if research offered a career path where I could find fulfillment and enjoyment in my job.
What is a typical day like in the research lab?
There are no typical days in the lab. Things often don’t go as intended, even when they are well-planned. I’m normally thinking, “What can I do to solve this problem?” Some of the work is repetitive; I might be transferring solutions from one location to another for three hours or so. But I know all of the work I do might lead to a satisfying result.
What was the most memorable moment in the lab?
A couple of months into my research work in Dr. Hilt’s lab, I repeatedly experienced unexpected and unwanted results. But I continued to keep trying and within the setbacks were times when I moved forward. I had a moment where I was very grateful to be in a position where I could try to figure out these complex problems. I was able to stand back and say, “Wow, this is really going to help people.” That was when I realized that I had found something that was challenging, exciting, and meaningful to me.
What advice do you have for teens looking at STEM degrees and/or career paths?
Take a range of science courses and really open your mind to the possibility that one of these could define the rest of your life. Also, consider the good that you might do and all the ways you will be able to contribute.