Q & A with Larry

Why do you want to be President of the AIChE?

I was both surprised and honored when I received a call from the Nominating Committee asking me if I would be a candidate for President-Elect. I agreed to run because I think AIChE is at a crucial time in its history.

Chemical engineering is facing unprecedented challenges as a profession and AIChE is facing challenges as an organization. With the right leadership we can effectively address these challenges. AIChE can continue to be an important force in the next century as it has been in the past. I want to be part of the leadership team and apply what I have learned from my broad experience in academia and industry to the challenges and opportunities at AIChE.

What do you see as the major challenges facing the Institute?

Before we talk about the challenges it is important to acknowledge the positive things that have happened. Through the hard work and smart decisions of many dedicated people, the AIChE has made it through a very difficult time, and has achieved significant financial turnaround a year ahead of schedule

Despite this accomplishment, serious issues remain: our membership has been declining in recent years at an annual rate of 5-7%; attendance at national meetings has been declining; local section activity is struggling; outsourcing and globalization are presenting career challenges for chemical engineers; and academic chemical engineering is experiencing something of an identity crisis as it seeks to define its educational mission for the future. At the same time we need to continue to build the financial strength of the Institute by maintaining a policy of fiscal responsibility.

I believe all of the problems can be addressed and, if we attack them creatively and execute solutions consistently, they are imminently solvable.

Why is it important to strengthen local sections?

Chemical engineers must be able to network and establish connections with colleagues in their local area. It is much easier for many chemical engineers - particularly those in industry - to relate to people they see on a regular basis than people they only read about or see every year or two at a national meeting. These local connections can also provide valuable career mobility for members. The problems of industry in one region, such as Silicon Valley, are different from those in another region, say the Gulf Coast. Local section meetings give members a chance to connect with others facing similar concerns. By strengthening the local sections, we provide important services to AIChE members, and more reason for them to continue their membership. As one famous politician once remarked, “All politics are local.” I would paraphrase this to say, “The most important concerns of chemical engineers in industry are local.”

How can we strengthen local sections?

I believe strong leadership is the key to turning around local section activity. For example, the Boston section has achieved a dramatic increase in participation in the past year. (See the December 2004 issue of CEP.) The section now routinely has 80 members at its monthly meeting and at one meeting this year there were 250!

The reason for the turnaround was a strong team of officers who were committed to achieving measurable improvement. Their key strategy was to improve networking opportunities while providing speakers on topics the members were really interested in, such as personal career development (entrepreneurship and effective communications) and emerging areas of technology (renewable energy and nanotechnology). The leadership team also focused intently on maintaining good communication with members through frequent email messages and an effective website.

I believe the national AIChE can help local sections by providing an accurate database of members in their area, by helping them identify good speakers, and by providing leadership development training to share practices that have worked in successful local sections.

How can we improve communications between the AIChE leadership and members?

The first step is to open up a channel of communication between the members and the officers. The major reason I created this website was to establish personal communication with AIChE members during the campaign. (I hope very much that you will send me your thoughts and ideas by email and will take the feedback survey). Similar approaches could be used by the AIChE national organization. For example, the new AIChE website that is being developed will provide opportunities for better communication through electronic message boards.

In my opinion the most important ingredient for improved communications is to be proactive in seeking input, to listen and to be responsive to what you hear. Then you need to use all of the vehicles available: email newsletters, postings on the website, town hall meetings by teleconference, webcasts, and even direct mail. It is almost impossible to over communicate.

We need to adopt the attitude that leaders are here to serve members. In order to do this, the leaders need to know what the members really want.

Why is it important for AIChE to take a leadership role in emerging technologies such nanotechnology, new energy systems, and sustainable development?

The application of emerging technologies represents an important growth area for future employment of chemical engineers. Entirely new industries are being created, such as those producing nanomaterials, applying biotechnology, and producing renewable energy. These require creating an underlying knowledge base through research, and then developing applications on a commercial scale.

Within the traditional chemical process industries, the emphasis in the future will be much more on creating new products than on creating new processes. Designing a new product, such as an automobile air bag, provides an opportunity for chemical engineers to work as part of an interdisciplinary team.

The common denominator in each of these areas is that they are based on application of chemical engineering technology. The chemical engineer plays an important role in each area. Chemical engineering is a field that quantitatively describes systems from the molecular to the macroscopic scales. We are able to model molecular and cellular phenomena, transport processes, and the behavior of large systems. While retaining our common discipline, we need to adapt to the specific needs of many new applications and to embrace these new fields.

What should AIChE do to serve traditional industries such as petroleum and petrochemicals?

I believe that the AIChE should continue to support chemical engineers in our traditional industries by providing a forum to discuss new developments in improving the performance of these industries.

The world will continue to need commodity products such as fuels, polymers and industrial chemicals - they are essential to our society. Chemical engineers will be needed to build and operate the plants to manufacture these products. Rather than developing new processes, the focus will be on improving the productivity of manufacturing operations so they are more efficient, use less energy, and are much cleaner environmentally.

I have seen tremendous opportunities in my own field for applying information technology to optimize production and automate operations. There have been many innovative developments to improve the design, operation and management of manufacturing facilities. Companies are using computer models to make better decisions across the entire supply chain from acquisition of raw materials, to production, to distribution of products to end users. The AIChE needs to be the place where chemical engineers report on these innovations and debate new ideas.

How important do you think it is for the AIChE to remain as a strong, independent technical society?

I believe it is important for AIChE to maintain its position as an independent, premier engineering society. The AIChE provides identity for chemical engineering as a discipline. The other major engineering disciplines including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and civil engineering all have their own independent engineering society. Chemical engineering is no different.

In addition to providing service to members, the AIChE plays an important role for the profession in accrediting academic programs, in recognizing leaders in the profession through awards, in holding technical meetings, and in publishing research.

We should encourage interdisciplinary cooperation with our peer professional societies in other fields, but I believe this should be from a position as a strong, independent society.

What are your thoughts on maintaining the fiscal strength of the AIChE?

When you have a financial problem, I believe it requires a multi-pronged attack. There is no magic bullet. It requires focusing on the revenue side, which AIChE can do by increasing retention of members and attendance at national meetings. It also requires a relentless prioritization of expenditures and making sure the budget is balanced.

We need to reverse the decline in membership by getting more young chemical engineers to join the AIChE when they graduate from their undergraduate program and then hold onto our membership by providing benefits the members really want.

Fortunately, most of the work of figuring out how to achieve financial stability has been done. Now, it is a matter of continued attention on it and focus on execution. The danger that we must avoid is taking our eye off the ball and relaxing when the pressure is relieved.

What if we have other questions?

If you have other questions, please send them to me by email (larry@larryevans.net) and I will respond directly. Those that appear to be of general interest will be posted and answered on this website.