My Experience as a Plastics Engineering Student
My name is Abigail Gilmore, and I am a senior studying Plastics Engineering Technology at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Whenever people inquire about my major, and I tell them I’m in plastics engineering, they typically look at me with a puzzled look on their face. If they don’t say it out loud, I know what they’re thinking: what on Earth does a plastics engineer do? Put simply, we are involved with the designing and manufacturing of plastic polymers and parts.
Plastics engineering is a unique major; Behrend is one of few schools in the country that offer it as a degree. When first applying to college, I intended to study mechanical engineering. However, during my tour at the Behrend campus, I was brought into the plastics lab that was filled with injection molding machines and many other types of equipment that I had never seen before. The size – and range of sizes – of these machines impressed me, and I found myself interested in learning how they worked to produce the plastic parts that we use today. It was then that I knew I had found my major. Plastic polymers were something I knew very little about, even though I interacted with plastic products on a daily basis. I knew that many items I used daily were plastic, but what process was used to manufacture these products? How many different types of plastic exist, and what makes each unique? With an interest in sustainability, I was intrigued by the idea of reducing plastic’s impact on the environment and finding a career where I could contribute on a global level.
Throughout my time at Behrend, I learned the answers to all of these questions. Plastic polymers have very unique properties compared to other materials and compared to one another. In class, we learn the chemistry involved with different plastic polymers that makes them perform the way they do. In high school, I despised chemistry. But suddenly, when put in this perspective, I enjoyed it. I found myself signing up to take an organic chemistry class as an elective, simply because I wanted to learn more about the chemical structure of polymers. I was amazed by my strong desire to learn after becoming truly passionate about the subject.
One of the most significant aspects of my major that I have failed to mention up until this point is the job market. There is currently a huge, and growing, demand for plastics engineers. Many companies hire mechanical engineers and train them on the subject of plastic polymers after graduation. Therefore, students who have already specialized in plastics for four years have an advantage when applying for these jobs. At Behrend’s career fair, the companies looking to hire graduates of the plastics engineering program often outnumber the students. I can say from experience, it is fantastic to be in that position.
In the past, I have had internships with two different companies: one with Berry Plastics in Hot Springs, AR, and the other with GOJO Industries in Akron, OH. I worked with Berry Plastics after my sophomore year of college and was involved with plastics manufacturing. I had the opportunity to troubleshoot plastics processes and create injection molded parts that I see out on the store shelves every day. The next summer, I worked at GOJO Industries – often known for their PURELL hand sanitizer – where I had a role in product development. As an intern, I had the opportunity to design dispensing systems for hand washing and disinfecting products. This involved some work designing parts using Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) and also different types of testing to verify designs and processes. Both experiences have brought me to where I am today, finishing school having already accepted a job (months prior to graduation).
Once out in industry, one of my main goals is to make plastic products more environmentally friendly. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the big pile of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean, made up of mostly plastic materials – gives the general public a negative view of our industry. What people don’t know is that plastic is actually a more environmentally friendly material, compared to many other traditional materials, for many applications. The problem isn’t using plastic materials; it’s how we use them and what we do with them after we’re done using them. From my experiences talking with companies, reading articles, and attending conferences, it is clear that the sustainability movement is already beginning in the plastics industry. I hope to be a part of that continuing effort, just as many students entering the industry in the next few years can be, too.
If given the opportunity to go back to my senior year of high school, back to the college application process and deciding on a major, I would make the same decision, time and time again. In 1967, the movie The Graduate played a scene where Mr. McGuire gives advice to the main character, a recent college graduate that is unsure about his future. Mr. McGuire says, “ I want to say one word to you. Just one word… Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” Well, Mr. McGuire was right, and that future is now.