NATICK, Mass. (March 18, 2014) -- Dr. Natalie Pomerantz and Laurel Doherty are helping Worcester Polytechnic Institute freshmen envision careers in the science, technology engineering and math, or STEM, fields.

The two chemical engineers, who work at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, have taken the time to talk to students in Dr. Terri A. Camesano's Introduction to Chemical Engineering class.

"First-year students greatly benefit from seeing and hearing from professionals," said Camesano, assistant dean of engineering and a professor of chemical engineering. "It helps them to envision their future career paths, and see whether this is the right path for them. Once they get interested in a certain area, they start asking more specific questions about which courses to take, which major/minor is best for them, and how to define their internships or other educational experiences."

Camesano pointed out that Pomerantz earned her doctorate and Doherty picked up her bachelor's degree at WPI.

"It was nice for the class to see very different perspectives," Camesano said. "Laurel also talked to the students about her plans to pursue graduate work. These are all important ideas for the students to consider."

It's also important for students to learn more details about what the field entails.

"When students go into chemical engineering, they don't always know exactly what it is. That was the case for me," said Pomerantz, a research chemical engineer on the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Team. "I think the professor wants them to understand how broad a field chemical engineering can be. As far as careers go, you can do water filtration, semiconductors, biomedical."

Doherty, a chemical engineer on the Biological Sciences & Technology Team, added, "I interviewed for jobs ranging from pharmaceuticals to R&D to food processing to cement. There is just a huge variety of things you can go and do."

Pomerantz works with chemical protective clothing; particularly research involving selectively permeable membranes that block chemical warfare agents from getting in but let water vapor go through so Soldiers can sweat and cool off. She said another approach to chemical protection is to embed reactive compounds within the fabric of the uniform to decontaminate the agent on contact.

In addition to helping Soldiers, Pomerantz said she believes another important aspect of her job, and her duty as a civil servant, is to help the next generation by sharing her expertise and knowledge. She added that she believes in promoting STEM. She said she is thrilled to interact with students ranging from middle school to college.

"I love STEM outreach," Pomerantz said about the time she has spent with middle school students touring NSRDEC. "I can see in their eyes that I am inspiring them."

Pomerantz said that students in WPI's freshman engineering class "have chosen that major. And they are really into it. They want to participate. They want to see exactly what it is that you do. They ask a lot of questions. You get to be the person that says, 'Yes! What I do is fascinating.'"

Pomerantz is judging an upcoming science fair and also a WPI graduate student competition. The latter gives her the chance not only to provide students feedback, but also to scope out future collaborations.

A senior project at WPI led Doherty to NSRDEC, and she liked the place and the work so much she wanted to return after graduation.

"I am on the bio end of things," Doherty said. "So I spend a lot of time in the lab with a lab coat, goggles, and gloves -- that whole thing. A lot of what I do where I think chemical engineering really comes into play is method development/experiment development. You can take a set of parameters and try to optimize it to get the best result. I have also done some work with automation. For example, right now I'm automating a fermentation process.

"I brought a fermenter into the class, which is actually a small reactor, so they actually got to see what that was, and most of them will be using them in the future."

Doherty is working as a part of collaboration with the Combat Feeding Directorate to look at gut bacteria.

"Gut bacteria break down some foods that your body can't digest on its own," Doherty said. "They can have a lot of positive effects on your health, but what gut bacteria you have depends on a lot of factors, including what you eat. Learning more about gut bacteria can help with the design of future Soldier rations, along with any other supplements that would help them to stay healthy in the field."

What's the best part of Doherty's job?

"Do I have to pick just one?" she said. "I like that it helps the Soldier. That I can look at my work, and I can see some benefits down the line. I like that what we do will make their lives better."

Both Pomerantz and Doherty want students to consider working at NSRDEC. They also said it is helpful for students to see people -- women, in particular -- pursuing science and engineering.
"If they see an example right in front of them, it really helps," said Doherty.

"It is important for them to see the face," Pomerantz said.


NSRDEC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.