Annette Bunge


How I Became a Chemical Engineer

I was born Annette Loch, the oldest of six children, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When I was 3 years old, my family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where my parents still live. I did the normal activities associated with growing up in a place like Nebraska. This means I did not ski, or hike or climb. Like my neighborhood friends I went to school, played a musical instrument, sang in choir and small groups, fought and played with my brothers and sisters, and ate corn -- lots of it. (You cannot live in Nebraska without eating corn. Until just a few years ago, I become grumpy if I have to go longer than a week without popcorn.)

I remember being in my first grade class and telling my friends that I wanted to go to college. I don't know why I said this. I don't think I even knew what college was. Probably, I had heard some adult saying some relative or friend who I admired was "going to college" and it sounded like a good thing to do. Whatever its origins, once the seed was planted it rooted and I spent my remaining years of primary and secondary education working toward my college goal. Although it was never spoken out loud, I knew that my parents would never provide financial support. A scholarship was essential. I began my search earnestly, and this was how I came to be a chemical engineer.

Maybe I would have chosen to be a chemical engineer even without financial incentives, but I will never know. In my desperation for a scholarship, I responded to an announcement of financial support from the chemical engineering department at the University of Nebraska. There was an interview with a committee of practicing chemical engineers (former graduates from the department) and some of the department's professors. They asked me why I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I know this seems like a natural question for them to ask, but I was caught by surprise. I did not even know what a chemical engineer was or did. I had never met a chemical engineer before that day. I don't remember what I told them, but I did not receive the scholarship. That was OK. I wanted to leave home, and a scholarship at the University of Nebraska did not provide that opportunity anyway.

My high school sweetheart was attending the University of Oklahoma and so that seemed like a good place to apply. I told the University of Oklahoma that I wanted to be a chemist. I had taken a chemistry course, so I thought I knew what chemistry was, even if I did not know exactly what a chemist might do. I arranged to visit the University of Oklahoma, allegedly to examine the school, although more truthfully to visit my boy friend. The admissions department arranged for me to visit the Chemistry department in a dingy, dusty office, where I learned I would have to take German if I wanted a bachelors of science instead of a bachelors of arts. (I had never heard of a bachelors of anything except for unmarried men before that day.) A visit with the Chairman of the Chemical Engineering Department was also arranged with the comment that "they were always looking for women" students. I did not understand why that would be until I was told that there had only been 1 woman graduate in the chemical engineering program in 4 years. (Times have changed a lot since those days. At the time I was preparing to go to college, computers that would fit on a desk top were a dream too.) Thankfully, there were no embarrassing questions about why I wanted to be a chemical engineer. If I agreed to enroll as a chemical engineer, they promised to give me a scholarship. Sounded good to me. A chemical engineer must be almost the same as a chemist I reasoned.

What more could a young woman want? A scholarship to attend a university 500 miles away from her home town (and parents) and at the same university as her boyfriend, studying a subject that was almost what she thought she was interested in. If you live in Colorado, Norman, Oklahoma may not sound very attractive. But if you lived in Omaha and had endured long, cold, dreary winters, Oklahoma seems like a significant improvement. And, so I began college as a chemical engineering student at the University of Oklahoma.

How I Became a Chemical Engineering Professor

Let me condense the rest of my story. I finished 3 years at the University of Oklahoma and then transferred to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I received a B.S. in chemical engineering. From there I went to the University of California at Berkeley to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. I chose Berkeley because it does not snow in Berkeley. (I was still pretty naive about how to make "life" choices like what graduate school to attend. Fortunately, Berkeley was a good choice, even if I did choose it for a stupid reason.) I enrolled as a master's student, but decided soon after starting to do a Ph.D. instead. I finished some 5+ years later with a thesis titled "Transport of electrolytes in porous media". The title disguised the real subject, which was how aqueous solutions of sodium hydroxide would move through and react with the rock in an oil reservoir. (Sodium hydroxide was injected into some oil reservoirs to improve oil production.)

After graduate school, I became an assistant professor at Colorado School of Mines, where I have been since 1981. During that time, the topics of my research have changed from oil recovery, to in-place mining, to methods for waste water treatment, to remediation of contaminated soils, to what I work on now -- absorption of chemicals into human skin. (It is good to remember that the topic of your thesis does not dictate what you must do for the rest of your life.)


Since leaving Nebraska, I have taken up a lot of very un-Nebraskan activities like rock climbing, skiing, kayaking and backpacking. But, despite all the years, I have never kicked the popcorn habit! I guess you can never really leave those childhood roots.

One additional thought. Be smarter than I was. Ask your professors, friends or family members for advice and information as you make decisions. Hoping that you will accidentally find a good path for you is not the best strategy.