Lecturer speaks from experience

Weekman shares insights from 42 years in oil industry with chemical engineering students

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- When students walked into chemical engineering 442 one Monday, the person standing at the front of the class was not their professor.

"Did Chris tell you I'd be here today?" asked the trim, white-haired man, referring to their regular teacher, Christodoulos Floudas.

Vern Weekman

Former oil industry executive Vern Weekman shares his practical perspective with students and faculty in the chemical engineering department.

Hardly waiting for an answer, he flipped on the overhead projector and began talking about his experiences helping to design one of the biggest synthetic fuel plants in the world. He did not so much as say his name, but he needed no introduction.

The visiting lecturer was Vern Weekman, a former oil industry executive who has become an important part of the chemical engineering curriculum at Princeton. By the time they are seniors, students in that major know him well. Rather than lead his own course, Weekman gives guest lectures in nearly every course the department offers. His role is to build on the theoretical knowledge and research experience the students accumulate and connect it to real-world problems drawn from his 42 years of experience in the field.

"Sometimes you lose touch with why you are doing this," said Eva Steinle-Darling, who graduated in 2003 and is now in graduate school at Stanford. "He was our connection to reality."

Over the course of four years, chemical engineering students hear Weekman talk about subjects from solar energy to mathematical modeling, but know him as more than a drop-in lecturer. Weekman plays an active role in many aspects of the department, advising students on everything from picking research projects to landing a job and investing their earnings.

Students who have graduated from the department look back at Weekman's advice and anecdotes a combination of hard-nosed realism and friendly enthusiasm as an important part of their education. "He is a really personable guy," said Joel Moxley, a 2002 graduate who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and still finds himself referring to Weekman in conversations with classmates. "You can't say the name Vern Weekman without cracking a smile."

Department chair Pablo Debene-detti said Weekman is able to bring students beyond the elegant engineering examples that faculty members are so good at devising and show them how technical, financial, environmental and political issues skew problems in unexpected ways. That perspective is useful for faculty members as well. "He is a great contributor in general to the intellectual life of the department," said Debenedetti, who recruited Weekman to Princeton in 2000.

"He gives a perspective that we as faculty, frankly, just don't convey very well," said Professor Richard Register. "The response from our students is always positive."

Weekman's wide-ranging experience comes from his work with a single company, Mobil. Weekman received a bachelor's degree from Purdue University and a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1954 before joining Mobil, where he spent his entire career. He won an employee-incentive fellowship to pursue a Ph.D., which he earned from Purdue in 1963.

In his first 20 years at Mobil, Weekman worked "in the trenches" helping design chemical plants, collecting data and trying to improve processes. He then became the manager of "process" research and development, which is the lifeblood of a company that demands ever-improving methods of refining and manipulating petrochemicals. This responsibility exposed him to Mobil's chemical and petroleum operations around the world and provides fodder for many of his current lectures.

Mobil threw Weekman an entirely new challenge in 1980, appointing him president of Mobil Solar Energy, a subsidiary company in Boston. Weekman found himself running an entrepreneurial business and shepherding experimental solar energy technology into the marketplace.

"When I first got the assignment, I thought, 'How can I do this?'" Weekman said. "Suddenly I had to work with physicists, electrical engineers everyone involved in the electronics side of things. Well, that's where I can tell the students that I discovered my background in chemical engineering was good training. I found it was an assignment I could handle."

For his last 10 years at Mobil, Weekman returned to the company's Princeton research labs (which have since moved to other locations) as director of central research. Weekman, who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985, said that directing Mobil's research was an exciting opportunity to work with "very bright people who were inventing things," a description that could apply to many academic research labs. Weekman said he often thought of moving to a university but always found new challenges that kept him at Mobil.

He became involved with Princeton University by serving on the external advisory committee for the chemical engineering department, chairing the committee for six years. Even after retiring from Mobil in 1996, however, Weekman still delayed trying his hand at teaching because he took on a new challenge as president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. With the institute's government relations committee, Weekman helped draft policy statements, which he then promoted in Washington.

Beyond technical expertise

All this experience has now become part of Weekman's classroom visits. In one course, he challenged students to write their own policy documents. "The students do an excellent job of this," he said. "Sometimes I think it's a better policy statement than we wrote because we had to compromise on our committee." In other classes, he relates what he describes as three of the most famous design failures in chemical engineering. "I happen to be associated with one of those, so I can talk about it," he said referring to a process that failed to operate as efficiently as a prototype plant had done.

"I show students how we were able to correct it, but it cost us time and money to do it," Weekman said.

"Always, I tell the students to look out for the fatal flaw," Weekman added. "You can optimize mathematically until you are blue in the face but, unless you find the fatal flaw in the design, the entire design could turn out to be a failure." He also discusses some of the company's successes, such as an improved version of the high-performance motor oil Mobil One, which was developed under his direction.

Much of Weekman's advice, however, is not technical at all. He talks with freshmen and sophomores about what it is like to be a chemical engineer. For seniors, he offers a workshop on writing resumes, how to negotiate the recruiting process and how to work with their first bosses and advance themselves.

Perhaps more than anything else Weekman stresses the importance of communicating effectively. Juniors and seniors majoring in chemical engineering are required to complete a series of "project labs" that are very challenging and end with an oral presentation before faculty members. Weekman often participates in the reviews and has become notorious among students for his tough appraisal of qualities such as eye contact, visual materials and clarity.

"He was very critical," said Steinle-Darling. "His comments, though, were dead-on. It gave you a really good idea of what you needed to work on. A lot of other professors would focus on the content of what you were saying, but he would comment on presentation aspects as well, which is very important."

For Moxley, that kind of training from Weekman and other experiences at Princeton is one of the most valuable aspects of his education in engineering. "Vern embodies the qualities that I would want from a Princeton degree the ability to communicate ideas but also to be technically sound," he said.

Weekman has applied those skills himself within the department to make his at-large appointment a success. The open-ended arrangement, with no defined curriculum, seemed risky at first, said Debenedetti. But Weekman has taken great initiative in contacting each faculty member and working out ways to contribute to their courses. Debenedetti is now thinking of ways to expand the idea and bring in more people from an even wider range of industries. "It has been a very successful experiment," he said.


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