Q&A with Genentech Automation Engineer Aneeka Ayyar
As part of Case Western Reserve University’s Women in Tech Initiative, alumna Aneeka Ayyar (Electrical Engineering, ‘18) shared her unique experience working in engineering roles in two industries: oil and gas and health care.
Tell us about your first job out of college in the oil and gas industry.
After graduating from CWRU I moved to Houston, Texas, where I was an instrumentation engineer at ExxonMobil. I started out for the first two years working on R&D initiatives and new projects for manufacturing sites. And for the last year I moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, to work at a new chemical plant. I was in the field most of the days. It was a very hands-on, rewarding experience.
What were some of the challenges and opportunities of working in oil and gas and for ExxonMobil?
It was different from what I was expecting. I didn't know that oil and gas or the chemical industry was an option for me as an Electrical Engineering graduate, so I was grateful for the opportunity.
There was so much to learn and they had a really great program for training new hires straight out of college. One of the challenges was finding other women in the workforce. For the first two years when I was on the corporate side, I felt like there was a reasonable amount of women there, but once I was out in the field, there was not. But managers and other females were super supportive of anyone new in their career, helping solve obstacles in your path.
When you think back on your experience with ExxonMobil, was there a particular project you were proud to work on?
During my time at ExxonMobil, I was an instrumentation engineer. I worked a lot with sensors and control valves and anything automation-related for process control. In addition to that, one of the R&D initiatives I worked on was trying to get gasoline to customers in rural Mexico where they were not able to bring in gasoline or diesel through pipelines. ExxonMobil found a way to get it there via rail. With that came the challenge of meeting our product quality specifications. I worked with a group of mechanical engineers and product quality experts to create a mini skid that would add our ExxonMobil-branded additives to the fuel so it would still meet our product quality specs.
Another challenge was we didn't know where these sites would be. Sometimes they didn't even have electricity, so we had to make a solution that was power-free — a totally mechanical solution. We ended up using a physical crank that we had to turn to add the additive to the fuel. It took a few tries for us to get it right, but once we did we were able to put it on a mini cart so they could wheel it from one site to another. We were doing this at a gas station, so we would see customers filling up their cars with the fuel that we had added the additive to. It was very rewarding to go from designing everything to seeing customers fill up their cars with the product.
What was it like to go from Texas to California to work in health care at Genentech?
It was a really big change for me. My roots from CWRU were in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, so I wanted to do something technical, but I wanted the opportunity to work in the health care industry. This opportunity was exactly what I was looking for. I'm currently an automation engineer at Genentech. I started in December 2021. It allows me to learn so much about programming and automation, while being on the pharmaceutical side and helping to save lives every day.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities you face in this role?
After working for three years in oil and gas, I understood that any change you implement is going to take a lot of documentation and approvals, but health care is a totally different animal. Because it's so heavily regulated, any little change we make requires a lot of documentation and sign-offs and testing.
After being in the workforce for a few years and looking back at your experience at CWRU, is there anything you would have done differently?
My path in college was different. I came in pre-med and biomedical engineering, and then I added on the electrical engineering focus in junior year. It took a lot to catch up and finish that, but it was definitely worth it for me.
I’d recommend students try different courses that may not be on your path for graduation. That’s how I discovered that I liked electrical engineering. I ended up taking a lot of classes that weren’t required but were beneficial. For example, I took a thermodynamics class and that helped me so much with process control. I also took an acting class, which was just for fun, and that's helped me a lot with public speaking, running a meeting and things like that.
So definitely try to explore different career paths and courses. Even if it's not something you end up liking, it's still great experience.
As someone who has worked in two different states right out of college, do you have any advice for students who are considering relocating?
The first thing is to be open to it. I know some people want to go back to their home state or they want to stay where they went to school, but I kept myself open to the whole United States when I was applying for jobs, and it was totally worth it.
Lean on support networks at work. A lot of companies will do networking events or new-hire lunches or happy hours. Definitely go to those to mingle, meet people and find yourself a mentor at work. The company might set up a mentor for you, but it's up to you as a mentee to foster the relationship. Go into their office every few weeks, ask a lot of questions, follow up. Those are relationships that you will carry even if you leave that job.
Another support network I've leaned on is the Society of Women Engineers. When I was living in Houston, I was part of the local chapter and now that I've moved to California, I've joined the Sacramento chapter. You get to meet a lot of different women in different industries.
Check out her video interview:
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