Dr Jessica M. Morris is an engineer specialising in fluid dynamics and safety. She works in Chicago as a senior associate at Exponent, an engineering and scientific consultation company. Jessica studied Chemical Engineering with aerospace and environmental engineering minors at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, followed by a Master of Science and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Arkansas.
“Diversity of thought is crucial when trying to solve engineering problems that no one else has solved before. Having a team comprised of different backgrounds, areas of expertise, culture, and experience allows the problem to be approached in different ways.”
Loving the consultant life
I completed a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, minoring in aerospace and environmental engineering. I have also earned a Master of Science and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Arkansas.
During my undergraduate career, I worked as a teaching assistant for the Chemical Engineering Department, and served in other roles less directly related to engineering. During my graduate training, I continued as a research and teaching assistant for the department, although I also started expanding into other disciplines.
My research afforded me the opportunity to work for DNV in London. Through the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, I was able to start a company (TorOptic LLC) with other experienced businesswomen. In the last year of my PhD programme, I developed and taught a course for first and second-year graduate students focusing on communication for academic, industry, and commercialisation applications. After finishing my PhD, I joined Exponent in the Chicago area where I am loving the consultant life.
Learning something new and solving problems that have never been solved before
My job changes day to day – which is something I love! Exponent is a multi-disciplinary engineering and scientific consulting firm that brings together more than 90 different disciplines to solve engineering, science, regulatory, and business issues facing our clients.
I am a part of the Thermal practice where we look at a wide range of engineering problems spanning: process safety, chemicals, fires and explosions, dust explosions, oil and gas, and so much more. I do a lot of proactive work where I have the opportunity of keeping people safe through Process Safety Management (PSM) programmes, Consequence Assessments, Building Siting Studies, and Quantitative Risk Assessments (QRAs).
My days can range anywhere from performing experiments in the lab, modelling hazards at a facility, helping sites with permitting applications, discussing safety programmes with clients, and collaborating on unique engineering problems with some of the best minds. Every day is something different, but every day I am learning something new and solving problems that have never been solved before.
Fluid mechanics – feel the force!
Fluid mechanics is a fascinating area of science that studies fluids (such as liquid, gas, or plasma) and how forces act on them. While completing my PhD, I was able to perform experiments in the world’s largest ultra-low speed wind tunnel at the Chemical Hazards Research Center under Dr. Tom O. Spicer III. We would model the way gas would behave depending on how it was released into the wind tunnel. Performing all of these experiments in a wind tunnel then helped us model how gases would behave outside in the atmosphere. If you have an accidental release of something hazardous, we want to know where it goes to keep people safe.
Impact of COVID-19
Luckily, I am still doing the same job that I love, although the communication looks different. I used to be able to share thoughts or questions about complex projects with some of the world’s leading experts in dust explosions, boilers, spontaneous combustion, or even human factors while grabbing coffee or a snack in the office.
Working from home, we are still able to collaborate thanks to technology; it just looks a little different. Since the pandemic started, I have been able to get to know the different areas of expertise my company has to offer and diversify the professionals I have worked with.
COVID-19 has also changed the way engineering professionals can reach out and have an impact on our youth. With many schools turning to virtual teaching environments during the pandemic, guest speakers are no longer limited by distance!
This Friday is my fourth Skype a Scientist session, where I have the opportunity to talk with middle school students about what it is like to be an engineer. My hope is that these youth not only see a super interesting and rewarding job but also see someone who has a different background than what is typically seen in the engineering field. I want all youth (especially young women) to feel supported and represented in the pursuit of their dreams.
More ideas from diverse individuals equals better problem solving
Diversity of thought is crucial when trying to solve engineering problems that no one else has solved before. Having a team comprised of different backgrounds, areas of expertise, culture, and experience allows the problem to be approached in different ways.
Diversity is key to being able to solve novel problems but then also apply those innovative solutions to new areas to continue the expansion of knowledge and development. A multidisciplinary approach allows for collaboration at a level that improves outcomes, as there are experts across component areas. A diversified team approach facilitates an improved final product.
Striving to be the best engineer and person I can
I have a lot of great role models across every level of engineering. During my undergraduate training, I had wonderful students a year or semester my senior providing advice. During graduate school, I had the most knowledgeable and supportive advisor who helped me develop into the engineer I am today. In my professional career, I have had great coworkers helping me acclimate, managers helping me shape my professional future, and experts at the top of their field showing me what I can be one day if I work hard.
I have many role models from across engineering who have helped me strive to be the best engineer and person I can be.
Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day
International Women in Engineering Day raises the profile of women engineers and highlights the amazing career opportunities available to women in engineering. I love what I do and I am passionate about the next generation of young scientists and engineers.
I believe that exposing our youth to different career opportunities at a young age is crucial to getting the best and brightest minds into these fields. Seeing someone that you can relate to in a career path is a great way to get youth motivated to pursue their dreams in STEM.
International Women in Engineering Day is a great way to highlight women in engineering to our youth and to emphasise the possibilities for women who choose to pursue a STEM career. Engineering is a traditionally male-dominated field. As a woman who seeks to support other women, I see this as a day of empowerment and progress. My hope is that young women pursuing STEM careers will feel supported and represented in the pursuit of their dreams.
Getting back to in-person collaboration
Professionally, I am excited to have the opportunity for in-person collaboration at conferences once again. Some of the most influential conversations I have had in my career occurred when in line at the coffee shop or sitting next to a stranger at dinner. Being able to resume in-person collaboration is exciting, and something I look forward to so I can continue to grow in my application of engineering principles.
Personally, I have been getting more connected to my community and volunteering within my community. I have been able to complete volunteer training during the pandemic, so I am excited to get out and apply what I have learned to help children and families this summer.