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Mikayla Students@Evonik

The Return of the Intern

Mikayla, who was born in New York, is already in Richmond for her second internship at Evonik over the summer to support her colleagues in the lab in research on surfactant. In her students@Evonik blog she shares her experiences with us.

Hi, Everyone!

My name is Mikayla Berman!  I am a 21 year old rising senior studying Chemical Engineering at Virginia Tech. This is actually my second summer interning at Evonik, working with the Care Solutions Department located at the Business and Innovation Center in Richmond, Virginia.

I first learned about Evonik through fellow chemical engineering friends at school, but my first interaction with the company was at an annual career fair held by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) during my sophomore year.  What drew me to Evonik was their “#HumanChemistry” initiative, as well as the work done in household and personal care products. I knew that I wanted to gain experience in research and development for products people use on a daily basis and was fortunate to have the opportunity to intern with a group that does just that.

As a New Yorker, born and raised, I needed a place to live for the summer. I was fortunate enough to rent a room from the family of one of my sorority sisters. I think this was an advantageous benefit, not only in terms of commuting to work, but also in terms of learning more about the city of Richmond. Between the two summers, I have been able to immerse myself in the culture, food, and lifestyle of Richmond. You may even say that I have fallen in love with the southern culture and food…definitely the food. I was able to even develop my own food blog on Instagram, @cooking.with.a.cheme, to document all the new things I was trying in the Richmond area. Beyond the food, some of my favorite places in the city include Carytown, Texas Beach, Maymont Park, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts! 

Over the last two summers, I have worked with products for industrial and institutional cleaning. I’ve spent a lot of time in the lab, which gave me great exposure on how to design an experiment, what to look for during experimentation, and how to analyze data in an industrial setting. The types of chemicals that I worked with the most have been surfactants, particularly those used in cleaning applications.

My largest, and most challenging task has been developing a predictive model that correlates theoretical surfactant data to applied surfactant data. In other words, I had to determine how variables such as a surfactant’s static surface tension and dynamic surface tension would play a role in their ability to clean. This was all new information to me. Surfactant chemistry was not a topic taught in my classes. When first trying to tackle the assignment, I kept thinking to myself, “How am I supposed to learn all of this?” I definitely felt intimidated. However, I am fortunate to be working with an incredible team, who have educated me and allowed me to grow through wonderful experiences in the lab. Everyone has been kind enough answer my questions and guide me with respect to procedures in the laboratory.  Evonik’s work culture is something very special… it is so open, and everyone is extremely willing to collaborate to make the team successful. My team has exceeded my expectations of what co-workers would be like in a specialty chemical industry. I am proud to have started the work on a predictive model, but it will be continued to be developed by the team. The end result will provide Evonik with a better understanding of the surfactant’s capabilities, and streamline the decision process when recommending a surfactant to a customer. 

This summer, I was fortunate to be invited back to Evonik and have continued working on the project.  I have also started learning a new instrument that performs calculations for methods such as contact angle and roll-off angle.  I am currently the only member of my team familiar with using the instrument, and actually have the opportunity to train the Care Solutions team how to use it!  I have been developing a Standardized Operating Procedure (SOP) for the instrument, to help them operate it even after my internship has ended.

The opportunity to continue working on last summer’s project has been wonderful, but my time at Evonik was condensed to 6 weeks instead of 12, due to the COVID-19 virus. Having only 6 weeks to make impactful contributions at Evonik has been a pretty strong challenge, but not one that I couldn’t handle. The experience, work-wise, has been similar between summers. The rigor, challenge, and excitement remain the same. Yet things around the office and laboratory have been different as a result of COVID -19.  It has been much quieter, as many people now work from home or come in on alternating schedules. I miss seeing some of my co-workers every day, but it’s important we limit our interactives and maintain social distancing.  I have really appreciated Evonik’s efforts to keep their employees safe during these unprecedented times.  Collaborating in a lab environment has also been challenging.  I’m used to being huddled around a new experiment, procedure, or instrument when learning, especially by being such a hands-on learner, but social distancing has placed a stop to that. Fortunately, the open culture and collaboration is still extremely accessible through constant communication, including virtual video conferencing. It feels different than last year, but it is so nice and refreshing to see people so dedicated to keeping the momentum going.

During my internships, I have learned the importance of communication, adaptability, and persistence. These are all skills I plan to take with me into the future, as they are key to any successful individual. I cannot say enough about the positive experiences I’ve had at Evonik, and it’s an opportunity I’d highly recommend.  The employees at Evonik are one-of-a-kind, seasoned industry professionals and they have created a warm, inviting and extremely education experience for me. I am beyond thankful for their friendship, mentorship and experience over these past two summers.

All the best,

Mikayla Berman

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