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Department: Chemical Engineering

Burke Chemical Engineering

Amy Burke ’99

Attorney, Federal Reserve Board

The right fit

As a senior in high school, I wanted to go to Princeton, and I wanted to major in chemical engineering. I was fortunate to have had wonderful chemistry, math, and English teachers in high school, and Princeton appealed to me as a place where I could get a top engineering education while also being able to take literature courses to my heart’s content. I wanted a rigorous scientific education, but not to the exclusion of the liberal arts, which was exactly what Princeton offered.

The chemical engineering department turned out to be a very good fit for me. It was a small department, with 36 students in my graduating class, so we had extraordinary access to the faculty (which was important because some of the problem sets we did were really hard!). I also enjoyed the close bonds I forged with my classmates. We always had a sense of being “in the trenches” together, whether working on a problem set or on our senior thesis research. A number of my best friendships came out of the department, and we have pursued a wide variety of careers, including (to name just a few) engineering, sailmaking, law, medicine, and software consulting.

My path after Princeton

After Princeton, I attended Harvard Law School. I thought about practicing patent law so that I could blend law and science, but ultimately found that my legal interests lay elsewhere. I worked at two law firms after I graduated, one in Boston and one in London, doing work on corporate transactions. I definitely got asked, “Why would a chemical engineering major become a corporate lawyer?” more than once, but one of the nice things about attending a school like Princeton is that it opens a lot of doors, even if they are not the most obvious choices.

I now am an attorney at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., where I help to draft regulations that relate to consumer lending. I like my current position very much, because it appeals to the quantitative side of me that enjoys learning about how financial products like credit cards and mortgages work, but I also get to work in the public interest by seeking solutions to problems that trip up the average consumer.

Value of my education

The skills that I learned as a chemical engineering major at Princeton have been invaluable to me in my career. The substance of my engineering and science courses was quite different from the legal problems that I address in my work, but the chemical engineering department fostered creative problem solving, helped me develop strong analytical skills, and taught me the value of clarity of expression. I was always impressed that my senior thesis adviser could explain the research she did to the administrative staff in clear terms, and could break jargon down to plain English. It is something that I have always sought to emulate, particularly because my job requires that I explain complicated regulatory requirements to members of the public who call with questions about them.

“The skills that I learned as a chemical engineering major at Princeton have been invaluable to me in my career. The substance of my engineering and science courses was quite different from the legal problems that I address in my work, but the chemical engineering department fostered creative problem solving, helped me develop strong analytical skills, and taught me the value of clarity of expression.”