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CELEBRATING ENGINEERS WEEK, PART 3: A Q&A WITH ZOE BARINAGA

To celebrate Engineers Week 2015 and the many ways in which engineering touches our daily lives, we reached out to several exceptional women engineers to learn about their paths to engineering, their roles as mentors, and their advice for students aspiring to STEM careers. Today, we hear from Zoe Barinaga, Global Polypropylene Marketing Manager with ExxonMobil Chemical Company.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get started on the path to being an engineer?

Growing up, there weren’t a whole lot of engineers in my family, but my mom was a very logical thinker and interested in how things worked.  She inspired us to take an early interest in math because she knew it was the foundation to many STEM careers. She was a middle school counselor and would bring home the math lessons those students were doing and teach them to us when we were very little. She encouraged me to do anything that I wanted to do, and her support made a tremendous difference. That’s where my love of math started. My love of science and engineering came later on, in high school, when I had the opportunity to go to science and engineering summer camps through one of the state universities in Florida.

In college, I majored in chemical engineering and had the great opportunity to do two internships with Exxon. That’s where I learned that engineering isn’t what everyone thinks it is. It’s so much more than calculations and numbers; it’s about teamwork and problem solving. It’s about getting people with different talents and perspectives together to improve processes and products. That’s when I really fell in love with engineering.


You’re very active in helping inspire and engage STEM students in your community. What kind of work do you do as a volunteer and mentor?

I’m involved in several ExxonMobil programs that promote STEM learning in different ways, and ExxonMobil supports community organizations where employees’ volunteer hours. One program I’m involved with in the Houston area is our Science Ambassadors Program, where we work with local schools to help students see the fun side of science and math with hands-on experiments, field trips, and support for their science fairs. We have kits and supplemental tools that we take into classrooms to teach students about things like geology, chemistry, oil and gas, and natural resources.

We have a Hispanic group at ExxonMobil that brings an annual science day to about 400 KIPP middle school students from the area who get to take part in hands-on science challenges and activities ranging from creating catapults to exploring how deep-sea drilling works. It’s a really fun event. I also helped start Corpus Christi Catholic School’s first robotics team, which is run by my husband and took first and second place at the Bayou City Classic Tournament this year.


Why is mentoring and volunteering important to you?

The engineering field has been so rewarding for me. Not only has it been a great living, it’s helped me work with a diversity of people and see how my unique perspective can contribute to solving significant problems.  I want to share that happiness and fulfillment with younger generations. I also believe that as we attract a greater diversity of students and employees, we can be more creative in solving the problems that affect our everyday lives. We don’t want engineering to be filled with just one kind of person. There’s a need for different thinking.

 

What do you wish more people knew about engineering?

I wish more people knew that engineering has a huge social impact and that it can be a good fit for people from any background. There has been a rise in girls studying environmental science and medicine, but the number of girls studying in fields like computer science and engineering isn’t increasing in the same way.  I wonder if we could be doing a better job marketing other math and science fields to girls. Growing up, I played with dolls. I didn’t play with Legos or take things apart to see how they worked. I was a girly-girl, and engineering was still a good match, because engineering is about solving the problems of the world.

I would also like for more people to understand how incredibly broad engineering really is. Being an engineer allows you to put your foot in the door in just about any field and gives you the foundation to for the logical thinking needed to solve all kinds of problems. I’ve known engineers who worked in the food industry, in the cosmetics industry, in teaching, in business, and as doctors. I started with a technical background and am now doing marketing. For the rest of my life, I’ll continue to explore other areas, and my background in engineering will support that.


 



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