Interview with Ms. Valerie Charboneau

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Today, I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Valerie Charboneau, a chemical engineer.

What was your first memorable experience with the sciences?

When I was in 7th grade, I attended my first Science Fair.  My dad spent days teaching me all about the electromagnetic spectrum, which was not in my 7th grade curriculum, all the while we drove around northeastern Ohio in search of infrared film.  We found it.  We bought it.  We set about to take photos of one of Dad’s bowling trophies in the dark using a hot iron as the source of illumination.  It seemed to go well, but after we got the pictures developed (and it was really too late to start a new project), we learned that the iron wasn’t giving off enough energy and our pictures were a bust.  Not every experiment goes as planned, but even a not-completely-successful Science Fair entry has things to teach us!

Did someone inspire you to pursue a career in STEM? If so, tell us your story.

My dad was my first and biggest inspiration.  He is a Chemical Engineer and his brain retains SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE about that subject even to this day!  He always represented the rational and the logical.  I spent four summers working at his place of employment as an intern.

My HS Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Hanley, came in second.  She rocked it.  She was so excited about moles and oxidation and reduction that she made it exciting when it wouldn’t have been otherwise.

What is it about STEM that most excites you?

I’m such a math geek.  That and computer programming.  I actually had the opportunity in my summer internship during college to combine these two as I helped build a model of a manufacturing process in FORTRAN.  It was really interesting that this model was discovering new truths that never were known before that.   I think that idea really stuck with me.

If you could solve any problem that your community, state, or even the world is afflicted with, what would it be? Why?

I would like to find a way to provide enough real, organic food that anyone in my community who wanted to eat well could do so.  I truly believe that a lot of the current widespread medical issues that we see originate from eating unhealthy options, but many people don’t have the ability to spend the necessary budget for healthy ones.

As a woman in STEM, what obstacles have you had to overcome to be successful?

Honestly, I haven’t had too many challenges because I’ve spent most of my career with an awesome company where diversity in all its forms has been truly appreciated.  Early in my career, I did a short assignment in a manufacturing plant in a part of America that was a bit left behind.  Sort of like getting into a time machine and going back to the 1940s.  I was a 22-year-old female engineer in a manufacturing plant.  There was sexism and a lot more racism, unfortunately.

How would you define success?

Enjoying your job.  It’s really that simple.  If you don’t enjoy it, get out quickly.  Don’t let the “golden handcuffs” keep you in a place where you’re unhappy with the actual day-to-day tasks that you do.

What advice do you have for young women who are up and coming in the world of STEM?

My advice is based on my own experience as an introverted woman in the world of STEM and I believe is relevant to both young men and women as they head to college and enter the workforce.   Many of us who go into STEM really just want to do our work with our heads down.  “What’s my task?  When do you need it?  OK, now let me do my thing.”

You need to build connection with people.

I am not talking about the “networking” that we always hear about, which seems to be more about “what can I gain professionally by interacting with Person X (A senior manager, a client, a head-of-the-department)?”  That’s “fake smile” interaction and is not helpful.

I’m talking about authenticity.  Being real.  Let co-workers, clients and those above you in the ladder get to know who you really are.  Let people see what you’re passionate about, what makes your eyes light up.  Both in work and out of work.  If people know what you love to do (and are therefore most likely to do it really well), they will remember you when they have a need for those types of skills.  It opens the door to new opportunities that might otherwise never come your way.

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