AIChE members at picnic day pouring liquid nitrogen on juice
AIChE's famous Picnic Day attraction: Liquid Nitrogen Sorbet! (Courtesy of Nina Thomas)

AIChE: More than Just a Chemical Engineering Club

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers, or AIChE, at the University of California, Davis, may be best known for serving liquid nitrogen sorbet, one of the most popular attractions on Picnic Day. However, what the hundreds of people who stand in line for this uniquely UC Davis delicacy may not know is that while AIChE is preparing for a successful Picnic Day 2024, they also provide crucial support for engineering students year-round through frequent opportunities to expand their skills beyond class, advance their career and build community. 

The first few years at UC Davis can prove challenging for engineering students, which is why AIChE has established a system they call "Mentorship Families," where a first- or second-year student is grouped with a couple of third-, fourth- or fifth-year students to support them.  

Third-year chemical engineering major and the external vice president of the AIChE chapter at UC Davis, Ashley Hoang, explained how the "families" build community through bonding activities held during the year.  

"Our biggest one is 'Mentorship Iron Chef' where families have to get together, create some dishes and then compete against each other," Hoang said. 

"One of our professors, Dr. Kuhl, has a saying that nobody gets through this major alone," recalled Nina Thomas, a third-year chemical engineering major and publicist of AIChE. "I've had the privilege of being guided by upperclassmen who've offered valuable career insights and tips on balancing my academics and social life." 

Emma Whitmer, a third-year chemical engineering major and the junior representative, agreed.  

"[First-year students in AIChE] receive so much help from upperclassmen," explained Whitmer. "I know [organic chemistry] is especially hard so it's cool when you become an upperclassman you can give back that same support that you received."  

Another example of this community building is through Women in Chemical Engineering, or WIC — an offshoot of AIChE that highlights and promotes the success of women engineers. 

"Having those spaces specifically meant for women or any marginalized group in engineering is really, really important," Thomas said.  

While AIChE is presented as a club solely for chemical engineering majors, Hoang, Thomas and Whitmer asserted it's open to any engineering major of any year.  

"People from many different backgrounds can come and enjoy the same events," Thomas explained.

Career Advancing Opportunities 

Every quarter, AIChE arranges tours of companies so students can see chemical engineering in a real-world environment beyond theoretical discussion and encourage connecting with professionals at work. 

AIChE members in Kemper Lobby wearing PPE and working with chemicals
AIChE at the E-Week Engineering Club Fair (Savannah Luy/UC Davis)

Recently, AIChE club members toured AMPAC Fine Chemicals, a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in East Sacramento that employs many UC Davis alumni. Members have since explored UC Davis' winery, and Hoang is already organizing the next tour at Bayer Crop Science in Woodland.  

Along with excursions to professional settings, AIChE brings recruiters directly to students with career fairs, most notably their Night with Industry. Organized every fall, the event connects engineering majors with more than 10 companies and limits attendance to around 120 students to increase the time students get to speak with recruiters. 

"These opportunities have not only enriched my academic journey but have also laid a strong foundation for my future career endeavors," said Thomas, who recalled several friends receiving offers from employers following the annual event. 

Developing hands-on engineering skills is another part of AIChE that widens career prospects. As part of AIChE, students use their skills to engineer ideas to life — an element present in all branches of their club, but especially Chem-E-Car — a shoebox-sized car powered by chemical reactions.

Students design and power their car through their choice of chemical reactions before competing against other chapters from different colleges. The UC Davis team is gearing up for the spring regionals held this year at UC Berkeley.  

Social Events with a Chemical Engineering Twist 

Balancing academics with socialization can be difficult for an engineering student, so AIChE also organizes unique social events that incorporate hands-on engineering. Recently a member of AIChE planned a social meetup around a skill she learned individually and wanted to share — welding.  

People inside the Coffee Center at UC Davis
Members of AIChE socialize at their "Roast Your Own Coffee" event during E-Week (UC Davis/Rishi Donapati)

Thomas recounted, "She reached out to a professor like, 'Hey, I really want to spread this around.' And the professor was like, 'Oh awesome! Let's do it!' So, she had a group of 20 go into the Engineering Student Design Center, and they all welded for three hours." 

"It's not all the time that you're able to show those kind of engineering processes in real life as clearly as you are in the coffee lab," Thomas explained, describing how AIChE expands upon the popular class, ECH 1 — "Design of Coffee: An Introduction to Chemical Engineering," by holding a roast-your-own-coffee event for E-Week 

Another event organized by AIChE is Pub with Professors, where undergraduates, graduate students and professors in the chemical engineering department gather at G Street Wunderbar. It is a rare environment where students can interact with professors away from the added pressure of being inside a classroom. 

Expanding skillsets and advancing their careers is a major perk of being part of AIChE, but those benefits alone are not what makes all the time and effort worth it. For Thomas, building community and watching each other grow is the real motivation for all the work going into the club.  

"The most rewarding part of AIChE is seeing fellow chemical engineers come out to socialize and learn," she shared. "Being able to see other people step out of their comfort zone...makes all the hard work I and the officer board do worth it one hundred times over."

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