Chemical Engineering

The Nature of Engineering: How Claire Janisch harnesses the power of nature, the world’s best builder

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch’s journey to find her life’s passion began as an intern in a chemical plant during her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She compares being in the plant to visiting a new, and strange land, like traveling to Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. Dismayed by the environmental destruction she observed that seemed embedded in most manufacturing processes, she felt certain that it did not have to be this way. She envisioned manufacturing processes that create useful things while nourishing the local ecosystem instead of destroying it. So, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in environmental process engineering, focusing on cleaning up polluting industries, and then worked on sustainable development projects in industry, agriculture, urban and commercial applications. Although she was doing important work, Claire still felt that something was missing from the manufacturing paradigm.

“It struck me that all most [of them] were doing was trying to slow down or minimize their negative impact on the environment. I wondered if there was an option for chemical engineering to leave a beneficial or regenerative environmental footprint.”

That’s when Claire discovered biomimicry. Biomimicry is “the practice of learning from and emulating nature to design sustainable products, processes and systems.” Nature already has created environmentally friendly solutions to engineering problems. Through biomimicry, humans can learn how reimagine modern society in ways that help to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. Claire is most proud of the work she is doing with BiomimicrySA, an organization she started in 2009, to bring experts in biomimicry technologies to South Africa to address pressing problems such as the current water crisis. One of these projects was in the top 10 for a European Green Tech award. Her team worked with John Todd Ecological Design and others to design a low cost, low tech wastewater treatment and stormwater management solution for a settlement near Cape Town.

“The project resulted in improved health and environment for the community as well as prevention of pollution of a downstream river that is used to irrigate important export crops from South Africa.”

Claire encourages women to consider engineering as a career with a mindset of helping to shift the field. Engineers take ideas and bring them into reality, but that process of creation can also lead to destruction. Claire believes her role as a woman in engineering has been to bring a feminine perspective of nurturing into a discipline that has been dominated historically by a lack of concern for environment impact. Women have a unique perspective.

“We need feminine perspectives in STEM, not just women who think like men, but women who think differently from men. We need the softness and nurturing, we need balance.” She points out that biomimicry itself is a wonderful example of that balance. “A spider web is strong and tough, but it is also nourishing because it can be eaten when it’s over.”

Claire advises future engineers to surround themselves with mentors to help get through challenges. And be open to finding mentors in unexpected places. Claire has found nature to be her biggest influence.

“I am lucky enough to have nature as my mentor and I am continuously inspired and amazed by the genius and wisdom in the way that organisms and ecosystems solve complex problems.”

How Vanessa Evoen’s Childhood Dream Became a Vision for Global Impact

Vanessa Evoen ● Process Engineer ● Lam Research

Vanessa Evoen ● Process Engineer ● Lam Research

Unlike most young people, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Vanessa Evoen had an unwavering answer-- she wanted to be an engineer. Although Vanessa excelled in many different disciplines, such as fashion and art, she never had to convince herself to love the dynamics of engineering.

Although currently based in California, growing up, Vanessa was constantly exposed to a variety of different places and it was her time in Lagos, Nigeria at the Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls that fostered her love of STEM.

“When I went to the all girls school in Nigeria, I took an introduction to technology class, and I remember it being so fun to learn how to build and create different things.”

After that initial experience, Vanessa engulfed herself in other STEM-related classes, including a technical drawing class where she learned how to fabricate isometric drawings by hand. Her continued excitement for learning how to develop plans for houses and machine parts sparked her interest in aerospace engineering. Her familiarity with travel encouraged her to study planes, however, her plans quickly changed after taking her first organic chemistry class.

“I remember it being one of the best classes I had ever taken, because it came to me so naturally. I never had direct guidance in picking a discipline for engineering, but I have a good memory which is useful in chemistry, so I combined it with engineering.”

After completing a summer research program at the University of California, Los Angeles, it was clear to Vanessa that she wanted to do experiments in technical fields. While working on her undergraduate degree at UCLA, Vanessa dove into research dealing with semiconductor fabrication, a process that produces integrated circuits that power a variety of electronic devices. She enjoyed studying the individual components of solar cells and their ability to convert energy into electricity.

Vanessa’s passions for the applications of energy led her to graduate school.  The eager scholar knew she wanted to attend one of the top two schools in her field at the time, which were MIT and Caltech. Vanessa admits she faced imposter syndrome after being accepted into Caltech. With an acceptance rate of less than 9 percent, she remained steadfast in her purpose of pursuing a PhD.

“Engineering at Caltech is a tough program to get through, and you really have to find your footing,”  said Vanessa. “Rather than focusing on how to get an A or how to have the best paper, I was more concerned on whether my experiments worked. I just knew my passion and why I was there.”

While at Caltech, the chemical engineer diversified her skill set by transitioning her focus to fuel cells and discovering how chemical energy can be converted into electrical energy. Although Vanessa enjoys her current work as a Plasma Etch Engineer at Lam Research, her experience of growing up in different parts of the world gave her a unique perspective and a desire to make a global impact.

“It’s pretty amazing that something I work on everyday is used by the average consumer, but my plans are more than what I am doing right now,” explained Vanessa. “Nigeria is one of the top ten oil producing countries in the world without constant electricity. I am always thinking of ways I can give back and what I can do to change that.”

As the first black women to receive her PhD at Caltech, Vanessa also hopes to excite more young individuals to enter STEM related fields. Furthermore, she created the platform, Vannyetal.com, to share stories, lifestyle tips, and mentor others.

“We need more people, especially women to pursue STEM. I know that I am the only person that looks like me in the lab, but I remember why I do what I do and I know that I can do it. I want others girls to have a mentor to encourage them to know they can achieve in STEM, too.”