Friday, February 15, 2013

Faces of Science: Following Family Footsteps and Going Beyond the Horizon

Dr. Li with her daughter and husband on a hiking trip near Laramie.
Dr. Dongmei “Katie” Li has a unique perspective on being an engineer. Not only is she one of just two women professors in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at the University of Wyoming, she also knows what it is like to be in the shoes of an international student and a member of a minority group. However, while her experiences and perspectives may be different than many of her colleagues, Dr. Li became interested in engineering in the same way that many engineers do: through family.
Like many engineers, Dr. Li started in the field because of her father. From the time she was young she wanted to be a chemical engineer.
“My dad is in chemical engineering,” Dr. Li says. “I started (into engineering) with the motivation of wanting to help with the family business.”
This motivation led Dr. Li to pursue her B.S. in Chemical Engineering at Shandong University and her M.S. in Chemical Engineering at Tianjin University in China. From China, Dr. Li moved halfway around to world to earn her Ph.D. at Colorado University Boulder (CU Boulder).
 “I had trouble understanding my professors my first semester,” she says, laughing. “I was taking seventeen graduate level credit hours which was extremely overwhelming. I tried to make friends, but most of the time people had a hard time understanding me. The first semester was tough, but luckily math and a chemical background were there, so I could read the books and do the homework.”
Dr. Li stayed at CU Boulder for her post-doc, but rather than continue with fundamental research topics, she decided to take a more applied approach.
“I happened to have the opportunity to work on a project that was very applied. It was a collaboration between CU Boulder and Sandia National Laboratories, and was sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI),” Dr. Li says. “That project was very crucial for me because it made me enjoy science and research again after being burned out by theoretical research at the end of graduate school.”
Dr. Li’s graduate school experience helped her develop techniques for problem solving by relying on science and her post-doc project introduced her to the refreshing world of applied science. Both of these experiences were instrumental in preparing her for her first job as a Senior Process Engineer at Intel Corporation, where she was one of the only women and minorities- both of which created a challenge due to the culture of the company. At first, she was seen through stereotypes, consequently resulting in unnecessary barriers between her and a few coworkers who had a different background.
“No doubt it was frustrating at the beginning,” Dr. Li says. “But then I learned that I had to earn respect from people who had been there for a long time and made their way up from the bottom, without an advanced or even college degree.”
Dr. Li overcame the stereotypes by using data and logic. As in graduate school, she relied on her knowledge in the field to address the challenge of the company culture and to succeed in that environment. When she left Intel, Dr. Li carried with her the importance of being flexible because, as she says, it is important to be able to deal with the unexpected issues, which arise in every job.
“You can only plan to a certain degree,” she says. “The rest are things you can’t control.”
While Dr. Li started out in chemical engineering to help with the family business, she did not return to China and her father is now retired. Instead, she followed opportunities and experienced a variety of career options and cultures. Despite any difficulties, the diversity of the cultures she has worked in has been the best part of her career.
“I think my favorite part of my job at Intel had to be being able to have the opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds in terms of their seniority in the company, education level and personal background,” Dr. Li says. “Now, being a professor I get to work with many students and collaborate with other professors on this campus, the Front Range (CU Boulder and Colorado State University) and nationwide. That is very enjoyable.”
Working with students, especially international students, is a highlight of her work at UW, especially because she knows what it is like to be in their shoes. Though she does not like to give advice, to foreign students she says, “No matter what you are facing, do one thing at a time, and do it well, and opportunity will come knocking at your door.”
To all students, she advises, “Don’t limit yourself. The world is fascinating. There are so many opportunities and I think being into science and technology opens doors you wouldn’t otherwise know exist.” 

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Dr. Dognmei Li

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