Interview with Alumna, Carmen Wright, Ph.D.

March 29, 2021

The McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering had the opportunity to sit down with an inspirational alumna, Dr. Carmen Wright, the first black female Ph.D. ChE graduate from The University of Texas at Austin. In honor of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it was a timely conversation about how Carmen has been the first of many throughout her life and encourages others to not let being the first at something ever deter you from reaching your goals. She also encourages others to let their idea of success evolve and change as life evolves, and to enjoy the journey rather than solely focusing on the end goal. 

Carmen went to Virginia Tech for her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and interned at Union Carbide for two summers, where she worked with engineers and scientists in the research lab.The opportunity to work with those Ph.D.’s, being in the lab and enjoying that experience, made her think, “Yeah, I can see myself doing this.”

Texas ChE: What did you love most about your Ph.D. experience?

Wright:

The community at Texas ChE was fabulous. It was very supportive and social, and there was little competition when we were studying for qualifying exams. Everyone was friendly and helpful to one another, and the professors were accessible and easy to talk to.

I also enjoyed being around people who had a passion for learning. Even as a teaching assistant and tutor for some undergrad classes, I noticed that they really wanted to learn. They weren’t asking for answers, but rather for explanations of concepts. It’s fun to help people like that.

Texas ChE: What do you think is the most valuable thing that your Ph.D. experience gave you for your life or career?

Wright:

It taught me two things: humility and perseverance. People often say to me, “Oh, you have a Ph.D., you must be really smart.” That’s not it at all. I saw lots of smart people come and go; it is about humility. As a Ph.D. student, you are trying to study something new, something that’s never been examined before. The more you learn, the more you recognize all the things you don’t know.

Every question you answer leads to so many more questions. This process gave me a perspective on how small my field of expertise was, and how much I had yet to discover.

You had to learn to approach everything with humility. This also applies more broadly.  In life, it’s best to avoid believing, “I know everything.”

Secondly, the people who did succeed were the ones who learned to persevere. There are hard days, bad days, and days when none of your experiments succeed. Feeling like you’re making no progress can be frustrating, but you can’t give up. You go back in the lab, try something different, read more, and you just keep going until you finish.

That’s why I mentioned before that community is so important. At Texas ChE, there’s a community that supported me through the difficult periods of my graduate work.

Texas ChE: What advice would you give to the next generation of black students and/or female students interested in chemical engineering?

Wright:

Don’t be surprised if you are the first or only black or female in your chemical engineering department or job. Those situations still happen and that’s okay. It should never be a deterrent.  Have a positive attitude, work hard, and show your value.

As the only black person in two different research groups at UT, I didn’t have any race-based concerns or issues. My lab mates and professors were great. My advice would be to keep an open mind and don’t allow other people’s perspectives to change your course.

Texas ChE: Who inspired you as a student or throughout your career?

Wright:

There were two professors during my undergraduate years at Virginia Tech. Dr. William Conger was the department chair and my first ChE professor.  He was very approachable, easy going and helped me picture myself as a chemical engineer.  Dr. Y.A. Liu was the professor who helped me realize that I should study at UT for my Ph.D. because of my interest in membrane science.

Leah Patterson and other researchers during my internships at Union Carbide also inspired me.  They were supportive, patient, and taught me so much about the chemical engineering aspects of my project. Leah provided an educational internship project that was also useful for the business.

At UT, there were many people who helped and inspired me along the way. “T”  Stockman, the graduate program coordinator when I was there, was our go-to for anything and everything.

Dr. John J. McKetta was truly inspirational. When I came into the department, I received a McKetta fellowship and was able to meet him.  Every time he saw me from that point on, he would genuinely be interested in how I was doing.  Dr. McKetta was an internationally known expert in ChE that treated everyone like a friend.

There was an incredible group of professors at Texas ChE, with amazing accomplishments in industry and/or academia.  The ChE professors loved their subjects and their students.  They were all present for us.

Texas ChE: What do you feel is your biggest triumph or achievement as a person in general, and as a black female?

Wright:

My biggest triumph was redefining my definition of success.  This resulted in quitting my job and becoming a stay-at-home mom. I felt like I needed to be more present at home. That was a really hard decision because I was only 10 years into my career. I was doing well and had some great opportunities in front of me, many of which were going to require more travel. Furthermore, I had worked very hard to earn my Ph.D.

Looking back, I’m thankful that I was strong enough to make that decision and do what was best for my family. I don’t regret it at all.  It was a triumph over my ego and a triumph over accepting someone else’s definition of success.

There can be a spotlight on women and minorities in engineering. I felt a lot of pressure to succeed as the first black woman ChE PhD in UT and in Shell Chemical Company. My career was supposed to culminate in some big title and pave the way for others behind me.  That’s just not the way my story went, and I think that’s okay.  Instead of trying to fill a mold or meet a stereotype, sometimes you just have to do what’s right for you. There will be moments in your life where you have to make tough choices and your priorities are revealed.  Define success your way and enjoy your journey.  I’m thankful that I did.

Carmen Wright lives with her husband, Glenn Wright, who is also a Texas ChE Ph.D. alum. They live in Houston and have two daughters.