Transcript of the 4th Xperimania chat

Science: Where can it take you? 29 May 2013

Please download the transcript here

Welcome everybody,

Hello everybody and welcome to the fourth Xperimania V chat in collaboration with inGenious.

I’m Barbara Schwarzenbacher, pedagogical adviser at European Schoolnet and in charge of coordinating the online chats. The topic of this chat today is “Science: Where can it take you” and it is based on an initiative of EPCA (European Petrochemical Association) to motivate students to start careers in Science.
We are now in Brussels in the office of European Schoolnet, and we have with us 3 industry representatives Wouter Bleukx (INEOS CHLORVINYLS), Ana Montenegro (REPSOL) and Toon Bruining (INTERBULK). Welcome to our three experts and to all of you the students and to your teachers who are here today for this chat.
The industry representatives will be available for the next 1:30 hour to answer as many of your questions as possible. First of all let’s ask the industry representatives to introduce themselves.

Hello everybody, my name is Wouter Bleux (WB), I am 42 years old. I have 3 children aged 9, 11 and 13, so it is nice to talk with children about science and about future jobs. Today, I am a product manager Vinyls, so let me explain what is a product manager. It is somebody who is working for the business handling sales production and planning of a company, who tries to implement the business strategy of the company both internally and externally. This is my job today and later I will tell you about my career evolution.

I am Ana Montenegro (AM) and I am working in the technical service and development department of Polyolefin at Repsol, in Spain. Polyolefin are plastics, the most common type that we are using and that you might be touching right now. My position actually is to develop materials and to serve our customers. They are big companies which create applications, such as automotive, buildings, pipes, etc.

My name is Toon Breuning (TB). I am 42 years old and I work for a company called Interbulk. My job title is corporate development director. I’ll explain a little bit more what it means. I studied civil engineering in Holland and after that I have always worked in Logistics. I have had several roles, I worked as a consultant, I worked for a company active in storage, I worked for a chemical company and today I again work for logistics. We serve customers like Repsol and like INEOS by bringing their goods to the final customers.

BS: Thank you very much for the introduction. Now let’s watch the video: “Science: where can it take us?”.
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While you can send us your questions, I’ll ask the experts to tell us how they came to choose a science career.

WB: I was always interested in Science and when I was 12 years old we had these boxes at school where we could do a little bit of science ourselves. It always loved that and that is why I studied science at secondary school. At University I studied chemical. We were 50% girls and 50% boys, so it was certainly not a boys’ world. At the end of the University we had to write a thesis which I did it at a bakery laboratory, where we started to improve bread and to make better cookies, so it was very interesting. So I stayed there for five years to write a PhD, or a bigger thesis, which takes many years because you really study molecules and you try to develop new things. We were really studying the wheat and their molecules to bake better quality bread. After that I could chose to stay at University or go and work in the private sector. I chose to work more in a business environment and I started working in a gelatine company. Gelatine is also a molecule which is present in the bones of all different animals, but also of humans. We extract this gelatine that can be used in various applications such as food applications for bakery, medicines, etc. I really started as a scientist in a laboratory to do research, but slowly I started visiting more customers and this was so interesting that I moved to a technical service job. I was visiting customers, talking to them and helping to improve their products. Then I got into sales, because I had the technical background, which often helps to sell more technical products, and then I went into business.. Today I am no longer in the gelatine business, but I am in Vinyls, (PVC). PVC is also used in windows and in pipes. Today I have a strictly business role as a product manager. When you work for a large company you often have many opportunities to move from one job to another and you never know where this will end. The advantage of having a scientific background is that you have many possibilities later in the company.

AM: In my case, my story is very similar to Wouter’s. I studied chemistry, because chemistry was the only science school that we had close to my small village. I liked sciences and I was good in maths and chemistry. With time I am very proud to do it, because it gave me a possibility to gain my life and my work. I started working in a petrochemical plant as process engineer in shifts, sleeping during the day and working during the night. The Petrochemical business is a continuous business, it never stops developing and you need to be pro-active. Like Wouter, I moved to the technical department as I didn’t like to be in the lab. I was visiting customers, developing materials and improving materials such as the bumper of the car. You are really proud when you see your final work in the streets. After that I went to the commercial side of the work and then I went back to the technical side. Now I have to manage 50 people both technicians and commercials.

TB: My background is a little bit different. In secondary school I really enjoyed Mathematics and usually the subject that you are very good at is also the subject that you really like. At the same time I have an entrepreneurial background as my parents had their own business. Thus I had an interest in economics, so I was looking for a combination between economics and business and the science background specifically in Mathematics.. During my studies I also wanted to go abroad to learn more about the rest of the world, so I did for example my thesis in Thailand for a logistics company. I like the international aspect and logistics is very international, so this is why I enjoy it so much. During my career I have tried to have those aspects that I like in my job: The International aspect and Mathematics, which is basically also about finding solutions. You need to enjoy these aspects.

WB: I would also like to add that it is not only the studies which are important, but also the competences and the motivation. Do you like to talk to people, do you like to listen; certainly your mentality is as important as the studies. Luckily enough Human Resources are not looking only at your studies, but more and more at your personality, your motivation. So it is not only the studies, but also the skills.

BS: Thank you very much for this introduction. We have 21 schools that have registered to this chat today. The first question comes from Germany and says: What skills do you expect from students who want to work in the chemical industry later? What educational background would you think is necessary? (e.g. is it a prerequisite to have attended ALL the science subjects at school? chemistry/physics/biology/informatics?)

WB: It depends a little bit on the job description. If you want to stay in a Technical research job, you need to be very focused, very precise and eager to learn about your market development. But if you are in a commercial environment or in the technical commercial environment you need to talk a lot to customers, be able to present, you need to listen to your customers in order to understand what they need. Based on this you can develop together new products or applications. So it is not only the background, but also the competences you have.
AM: I think curiosity is also an important skill. Even if you study economy, you can end up in the science world if you are the kind of people with an active life and if you are curious.

BS: Thank you Wouter and Ana. The next question comes from Belgium: Most of products are made from the transformation of hydrocarbon molecules. What will happen when the reserves of oil will be exhausted?

AM: This is a very good question, because people think that all chemicals come from hydrocarbons, but materials come from different sources. Of course, if you consider the most common plastics you think of hydrocarbons, but today the chemical industry as a whole is developing bio plastics or eco-plastics. Eco-plastic is created when we reuse every product after their end of life. And you ask what we’ll do when our fuel stock is exhausted well I would say that we need to create fuel differently. We need to invent something. That is the power of science, isn’t it?
TB: From a logistics perspective, if you look at the transport company, 25-40% of its cost is related to fuel consumption, and it is very important to reduce the consumption of fuel. We do that in various ways: One way is to look at innovation, have a look at the ergonomics of trucks, spoilers of trucks. Another way is to develop new engines. Today we have Euro 6 engines which consume 10% less than before, so this is also an area where we need science to develop the technology that goes with these new applications. Our company is very much focused on that because we are an inter-mobile company, meaning that we use trains and ships but also trucks in order to reduce the total fuel consumption. At the same time I see for example shipping companies increasing the size of their ships. A new ship has been launched which can load 18.000 containers. Maybe 10-20 year ago, the maximum number of containers that could be carried was about 10.000. So there is also a lot of research and innovation in our area to reduce the fuel consumption.

BS: The next question comes from Germany: the experts were talking about recycling of plastics. But can biodegradable plastics be used for every kind of application? Does it have the right properties, like a very long lifetime or chemical stability?

WB: I would give a practical example. Yes, plastics can be reused, but indeed not for every kind of application. Most of the time recycled plastic is mixed with fresh chemicals in order to make a new stable application. So it is not 100% reusable as such, but when it is mixed with other substances, you can certainly reuse it. I will give an example: Last year in the UK, 1 million window frames were recycled. They were broken down again and mixed with fresh products to make new window frames. We are more and more producing products which can be reused and which have a very long life cycle and in this way I think the industry is really helping the environment and the earth by reusing many of the products that we make.

BS: The next question comes from Israel and says: How many women work in your company? Are there more men than women in the chemical industry?

AM: In Repsol we are more or less 50% women 50% men. It depends on the position. In the commercial side it is mostly men working and in the technical there are more women than men.

TB: in our company we are about 50% to 50% as well. Women work in various roles like in finance, marketing, sales, customer service. I think for any position it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman. It is important that you exploit your own talents.

BS: The next question comes from Croatia: What is the impact of your scientific job on your personal life? Do you have enough time for yourselves? Is it worth it?

WB: That is indeed a very important question, because you always need to look for the right balance between work and family. But that is not specific to a scientific job. It has to do with anything you do. Today my job deals a lot with international, which means a lot of travelling. I usually travel one or two days every day, and during these days I don’t see my children and I miss them of course. But I think as long as you decide as a family what the best is for you and the family, then you can find a really challenging job and still have a very good family work balance. At the end, as long as you and your family feel that it is still ok and right, I think it is no problem. For me personally it would be difficult to do a job from 9 to 5 because it doesn’t fit with my character and my wife knows that, and she would maybe be even a little bit more nervous if I were more at home.

AM: When you decide to study, this is the first step you take. You decide to study because you want to grow and start a different life. Of course you have your goal in mind and you work for that. I am mother of two boys. I travel and then my husband stays at home. We share our position as parents 50% to 50%. I think the most important is to be sure that your family is ok. Perhaps I am not behaving in the same ways my mother was, because she was an home keeper, and sometimes she tells me: “It is not how often you are with your family, but it is the quality of the time you stay with them that counts.” Don’t forget, you stay for them, not just with them. I am very proud to be working at Repsol, because three years ago we started a program aiming to conciliate both family and work. I have the possibility to do tele-working, from home. I love my job and my husband loves his job and this is the most important.

TB: The only thing that I can add is that I need to be flexible with my job as I also travel quite a lot. And I work one and sometimes two days a week from home. That is possible nowadays with internet connection and all. If you are young and you want to make a career you need to have this kind of flexibility. It doesn’t mean that you will be always working from 9 to 5, but sometimes you will be travelling and sometimes you will be working at night.

BS: Thank you. The next question is a general one: When you are looking to recruit someone, what characteristics do you look at in a CV?

WB: Most of us are managing a team and you would need be involved in the recruitment process. In a CV first of all we look at the studies, and whether it fits to the job. But for me this is certainly not the most important thing, neither the level of your marks. I prefer someone who has always passed or maybe even had to repeat a year, but who has a much broader kind of experience than the studies. It is also important to see what kind of student jobs they have done. Have they experienced working with people, were they babysitting? All these things are as important as just the background or the studies because as I said at the beginning, it is the other competencies that show if you have drive, and ambition and a go-for-it mentality, if you are hands-on. These things are for me as important as the studies which the person has done.

AM: At the end, the CV is needed and in order to be working in my department they need to be scientists, but also languages are important. When you sell a product in France you need to speak French, and when you go to China you need to speak Chinese. At the end to speak English is the basis, but the more languages you can learn, the better it is. We are all looking for flexibility and in a CV you can see whether a person is doing many different things like studies and work.

TB: At the beginning of your career, your CV is very important the type of studies that you have done and also the grades, but later on it is not only +what is in your CV, but also your character which will determine your career. So when I have somebody in front of me looking for a job, I look for something that shows this character. If I look at myself, in secondary school I had to repeat one year simply because I was too young and childish. But after that it appeared to be a very good move, because after this year everything was much easier for me. I could have done my time at University in four years, but I did it in six years. I fully used the time that I was allowed to, but that doesn’t mean that I was doing nothing. I used this time to do other things. Simply by looking at my CV you could have concluded: Oh this guy took two years longer, he had to repeat a year in school, but this would have been a wrong conclusion. Because you would also have noticed that there were many other things that formed my character. So school, studies and grades are important in your CV, but also show that you do something extra outside your career.

BS: Thank you very much for this long and precise answer. As next thing I would like to ask you to share with us how your typical working day looks like.

TB: For me every day is different. It would be even easier to say “how does a typical week look like”. What is important to understand is that we are an international company, part of a group with colleagues all over the world. Iif you are in a managerial role there is a lot of coordination and correspondence, teleconferences and e-mails. There is a lot of communication going on during the day. Meeting with your colleagues, meeting with your customers and on average, as I said earlier, I travel part the week, meeting suppliers, meeting customers, and the rest is either at home, or at the office where I am based.

AM: For me it is totally the same, my life is totally surprising. For example if the customer has a problem I need to fly there and see what is happening and search for a solution. It is a very active life, but at the end of the day I am not exhausted because I love it.

WB: It is similar for me. Sometimes I don’t know in the morning what would happen during the day, or sometimes the day was totally different to what I thought it would be in the morning. There is an internal part and an external part in my job.
The internal part is working on the company’s strategy, so talking with people about our planning, and talking with production about the quality of our product. It is talking with logistics and with customer service, how we can better serve our customers, etc. The external part is even more important as we work all for our customers. So it is contacting customers, check what they need, what they want, why are they satisfied or not, how can we improve and what drives the market? Is the market increasing or decreasing, why, what is happening, can we change the market, what is the impact of the economic crisis on our company. So it is an internal and external aspect which can be different every day.

BS: The next question comes from Romania: Is it possible that some new products entering the market have negative effects on people and the environment?

AM: Based on our knowledge nowadays it is impossible for new products. The chemical industry commits to something that no other industry has, namely the responsible care. We implement rules in our industry to assure that we are going to analyse all the different possibilities. Of course things can always be improved. I will give an example; when I was a child, I used to sit in the back seat of my dad’s car and I never had to use the seat belt, but today the automotive industry makes sure that every car has seat belts at the back. So does it mean that driving was so unsafe 10-20 years ago? I don’t think so. We live in a world that is constantly improving and getting safer.

BS: The next question comes from Turkey: How do you test the side effect of a new product on humans after developing the product?

AM: External contractors are testing chemical substances produced by the industry. In the chemical industry we follow studies, we analyze and at the end, if there is an improvement we follow up.

WB: I think the European Commission is also playing an important role and the chemical industry is really cooperating a lot with the Commission. There are quite a lot of rules. I don’t know if you heard of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) program, but it has a major impact on the chemical industry in Europe. The cost is very high for the chemical industry, but it is the right approach, because products should be safe and healthy. This is why there is a good cooperation with the European Commission.

BS: The next question comes from Germany: Health, safety and security in a company must have a cost. How does your company prevent the customers from buying their chemicals in other countries that maybe do not put such effort in safety and sell their products cheaper?

WB: The chemical industry puts a great emphasis on health and safety. That indeed has a cost, but does not mean that it is more expensive. Let me give you an example. As a logistics service provider, we carry chemical products in tank containers. 10-20 years ago a lot of these chemicals were being carried in steel drums. These drums needed to be handled much more often, which also generated certain risks. In the end, it appeared that the mean of transport to carry the products is safer and can also be cheaper. So paying attention to health and safety can also reduce cost. The same is true for a safe supply chain,. The impact can be so large that the costs afterwards are much higher. And our philosophy is: if it is not safe, we won’t do it. So this shows that the industry is safe and is doing everything to mitigate the risks.

BS: The next question comes from Turkey: Should we start our professional life at a large and well-known company or a small one where we can improve ourselves better?

WB: That is indeed an interesting question. As far as I am concerned, I only worked for fairly large companies, but I think there are advantages working either in a large or a small company. In a large company maybe you are better surrounded, you do your job, you can make yourself visible, but your activity is somewhat restricted to your job. If you work in a smaller company you can have a better view of all in the opportunities that the company offers and you may decide much quicker what kind of job you prefer. Before becoming a sales and business responsible it took maybe 10 to 12 years to reach that level. If you are in a small company it is possible that in 2-3 years you can be responsible for the business because you get involved in the business much quicker in a small company. If you are a small grower, then it is maybe good to start in a large company, but if you are ambitious and you want to do lots of different things from the beginning, then maybe start in a small company.

BS: You said you hire people yourself, so does it make any difference to you whether a candidate has worked in a big company or rather a small company?

TB: For me it doesn’t matter. Maybe in a bigger company they have higher qualification standards that you need to meet, so from that perspective you could say that if the person managed to pass all the qualifications then the person will be good. But this is a general remark and doesn’t always apply.
Personally I always tried to find good learning possibilities. They can come from different ways: Who your boss is going to be; the trainings that are being facilitated in the company; or by simply looking at the role. This is what I always looked at in my career, regardless of the size of the company.

BS: Thank you! The next question comes from Estonia: Do you think there is one topic in science which is more interesting than the others?

WB: During my career, I have been in charge of gelatine, then phosphates and today I am in plastics.. Those are chemicals, within different environments and each environment teaches you something new, and as Toon says, As long as you can learn something new, it remains interesting and then it doesn’t matter which kind of science it is.

BS: The next and last question comes from Estonia: in chemical industry - how much leftovers (waste) do you produce and how do you process them?

AM: There are products that are very difficult to produce, but this is constantly improved. If with one product we have 3% of waste products, next year we strive to have 2,5% or less waste products. Because of course, at the end of the day every product can be sold. So nothing goes into the bin, don’t worry.

BS: To close this chat I would like to ask the experts to say a few motivational words to the students, something that makes them want to start a career in Science.

TB: I think every person is blessed with certain talents, you can have certain ambitions, but if you have them it doesn’t mean that you are better than the person who doesn’t have those ambitions. I was raised with those ideas that you should get out of your career as much as you can. I think that if you are a brilliant scientist you can stay a brilliant scientist, but usually it is good if a person has a broad interest. If you have curiosity, then Science is a good career as it is looking for solutions. What I would like to say is try to look for your talent, try to look for what is really making you enthusiastic and with a bit of character, the rest will come.

AM:. There is a place for every character in the chemical industry. You have people who don’t like to travel every day and who don’t like to be far away, and lead this very active way of life. In my department 50% of the people remain seated in the lab. The most important thing is the imagination. They imagine one thing, they do it, the technician listens to the customers, but the people who are implementing these improvements are people with imagination. So I would like to add to the important skills also “imagination”. I would like to ask you to choose a Science career because it is a really nice, open, broad and passionate career that you can follow. You will find your way!

WB: I think Ana is right, indeed, Science careers offer many different possibilities. Later in your career you can go in every direction with a scientific background. So even if you chose science today, don’t think that you will only be in the lab. We very much need them to develop new things and hopefully there will always be many people working in laboratories, but there are so many other opportunities. I think the most important thing is that first you listen to yourself and do something that you really like to do. Because if you do something that you don’t like you will not work for a long time and we all need to have long careers and we all need to work longer and longer. It is not good for people to do something that they don’t like and at 40 years old they are completely burned out because it is all too much. There is a lot of pressure, but as long as you study what you really like then you can have a very long career. Just listen to yourself, follow your heart and talk to the people that you like about your career. If you do this, then I think you can only have a very bright future. Success to all!