New Experiences, New Perspectives

Fall 2016

Jamie-Lee Freeston

Schulich Leader at Queen's University

As you pursue your studies, learning all you can in the classroom and extracurricular activities, you start to think, “Wow, University has taught me so much!”.  And of course you would be right. It’s incredible how much knowledge your brain can absorb in such a short timeframe. But let’s be honest, we still don’t know a whole lot about the world. We still have so much to learn.
 
This year I decided to take the year off from school to go on an internship, working in an area of my field. I left everything I knew behind, moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere by myself, and am now working for Imperial Oil at one of their refineries as a technical services intern. Going into the position, I felt confident, ready to apply everything I learned at school to help, and extremely eager to learn a few new things along the way. How naïve of me. 
 
Stepping into the role, being thrown into the real world, I can confidently say I know very little. But I do know that I’m going to have the experience of a lifetime, learning first hand about the refining process and helping in small pieces as I do. It’s amazing how much school doesn’t teach you. How much more there is to know than some theory. In the 5 months I’ve been there so far, I’ve learned that nothing ever goes as planned. On a daily basis, there are always process and design issues popping up, upsets that have to be dealt with, unit shutdowns, constraints that have to be debottlenecked, safety issues that have to be managed properly, continuous optimization that has to occur for efficient operation… the work truly is never ending. And these are only short term goals. The number of projects and planning that occurs for the long term is just as much, if not more.
 
I never realized how many adjustments are constantly needed for a process to operate effectively. In class, we learn about simple steady state operation, and how once a process is started, there isn’t a lot more that needs to be changed. Working at the refinery, I know now this is definitely not the case. Every unit is dependant on the others, and with this interconnectivity, changes are always made to keep things running as smoothly as they can. I really do have a new perspective, and a new appreciation for the importance of good engineering. Smart, quick decisions always need to be made, and without such dedicated, intelligent engineers and operators, nothing would be possible. 
 
In the short time I’ve worked, I’ve already been involved in so many things, such as daily and monthly unit monitoring, stewardship, and critical inventory field data collection. I’ve backfilled for fulltime technical contacts while they were away from site, leaving me with the huge responsibility of being the technical person in charge of ensuring units run as needed. But by far one of the coolest things I’ve done is climbed inside a distillation column and heater for inspection during the turnaround. Who can say they’ve been inside a tower like that!? It was unreal to see first hand things I’ve only seen before in books.
With 11 months to go, I can’t imagine what else I’m going to learn and become a part of. I’m really excited to say the least! Even though returning to school next year with the majority of my friends already graduated will be hard, I am glad I took this experience. It’s teaching me not only about engineering and design, but about myself and what I want in life coming out of school. I’m meeting incredible people along the way, growing professionally, taking on a lot of responsibility, and I absolutely have no regrets. What an eye opening, fulfilling experience it has been so far.