Working Life

Outside my comfort zone

Science  15 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6198, pp. 842
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6198.842

Heat and sand. A restrictive culture. Saudi Arabia didn't seem to have much to offer compared with other countries I had visited. So, after decades spent happily working in laboratories, how did I end up in the Saudi desert, trying to do science at a petrochemical plant? My long career with a developer of petrochemical processing technology began as a research chemist at its main research center near Chicago, Illinois. It was—is—a very fine laboratory. We were able to turn out accurate results quickly. An array of pilot plants ran smoothly, cranking out data 24/7. Complex experiments were designed, and definitive conclusions were drawn efficiently.

“Things that are easy in the research lab … are hard in the field.”

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

In time I took on a new role, helping develop collaborations with other companies in the United States and abroad. This was a fundamental shift for me: While I was still deeply involved in solving scientific problems, there was a new focus on building relationships. Then, a few years ago, someone got the bright idea that I should join a technical team to diagnose and solve performance problems at a customer's propane dehydrogenation facility, which my company had designed, while the plant remained up and running. It was a formidable challenge, and a lot was on the line.

In some ways, I was not an obvious choice. I knew little about the technology. I had never worked in the field, in a production unit. No one cared. Those encouraging me to join the team praised my “vast expertise and experience.” They said my “fresh eyes” would be a benefit to the team. I fell for the flattery and signed on.

After a crash review of the technology, I embarked on the first of three 2-week site visits to Al Jubail on the Persian Gulf coast. Major culture shock. All women there wear full burqas; no faces are seen and no interaction permitted, so you are cut off from half of society. Everything is forced to close during prayer times. Inappropriate dress, even by men, results in a public reprimand from a local cop. I had been to Muslim countries before, but this was far more intense. It was jarring and isolating but also fascinating. And it was HOT.

You'd think that removing two little hydrogen atoms from propane to make propylene would be simple. It is not. Propane wants to keep them. The dehydrogenation facility is big and incredibly complicated: huge, hot catalytic reactors, multiple gas separation towers, gas purification units, and cooling systems, together covering four city blocks. It's loud and scary, and a lot different from the state-of-the-art laboratory I was used to.

I knew going in that to succeed I must build respectful, somewhat personal, working relationships with the local staff. Pretending to know everything (or anything) would be a bad idea; it's much better to ask questions and dig for answers together. Cultural sensitivity was crucial. My first visit, during the fasting month of Ramadan, required some particularly difficult adaptations: If you must eat or drink water during the day, please be discrete.

Things that are easy in the research lab, I learned, are hard in the field. Reliable data are crucial in any investigation, but much harder to obtain in an operational industrial facility. A research pilot plant designed for liters per day is way different than a facility producing hundreds of tons per day. There is much you cannot do: You can't take samples from just any point in the process, or change operating conditions just to see what happens. Staff members may lack the experience necessary to avoid subtle problems in sampling and analysis. Data are often so uncertain, so clouded by events, that interpretation becomes more art than science, or impossible. I organized a series of conference calls with our analytical experts back home, reviewing and improving procedures alongside local staff. We made progress and improved relationships.

When troubleshooting complex systems—systems that encompass not just science and technology but also people and relationships—there may be many culprits. By addressing root causes of disparate problems, our team made important improvements. And I learned plenty.

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