Friday, January 6, 2012

My Ina and process engineering

I am a kampung girl, with paddy planters feet, I grew up in the kampung but learned a lot of process engineering from my Ina. Process engineering is one of the career options of a chemical engineering graduate. It deals with making raw materials reach it's customers in the product form that it is required. The raw materials can be fossil fuel, biomass, oleochemicals, minerals etc. The products can be in the form of chips, electrical gadgets, food, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, fuel etc. 

As a kid I used to read a lot and there is three words that I came across which reverberated through my life. It was, "making rocket fuel". Thirty years ago, I used to be cared for by my grandmother who I lovingly know as "Ina". Part of the fun activities were feeding the farm animals, making "nonsoom" (fermented food) of either fruits, fish or meat, as well as my favorite, making rocket fuel. Back then I did not know that I was helping my grandmother turn biomass into rocket fuel. I thought, I was just helping out in doing house chores. 

My Ina was very organized with her rocket fuel making procedure, firstly the glutinous rice was cooked and laid out to cool on an open flat area. Care must be taken not to contaminate the biomass hence no running around for me. I was happy doing it cos I got to eat the yummy leftovers of glutinous rice with sugar. Next the cooled biomass is mixed with the innoculum, an ingredient locally called "sasad". Following that, the inoculated biomass was fed into a reactor, which usually was a "tajau" and further care was taken to keep any air pockets from being trapped in the biomass to keep contamination to a minimum. Then she would put a piece of charcoal and a parang on top of the reactor. Which I later on realized kept the air around the mouth of the reactor clean. After two weeks, she would open it up and check if it was suitable for either direct consumption as a nutritious drink or to be made into rocket fuel. If it was good enough to be harvested then careful solid liquid separation was conducted using a net or a homemade sieve and proper sterile drink packaging in recycled glass bottles were conducted.

If the biomass was more suitable for rocket fuel, further processing was to be conducted. This process was distillation, which is actually cooking the biomass and with a cooling pan placed at the top of the tall thin cooker to catch the condensate. The cooker is covered by a large wok filled with cool water. It was my job to keep replacing the water if it got too hot and making sure the firewood kept burning at the right rate. My Ina would be upset when I got the fire too big. It caused the biomass to be burned and reduce product quality. Both these products were sold to the neighbors and community. This was one of her many life long income generating activities as she lost her husband when my mother was only ten. It helped her raise seven kids on her own in he mid 1900s.     

Being an avid reader, it made me dream of a better life for myself. I imagined myself traveling the world and observing cultures other than my own. Yet this was not possible as I was from very humble origins. The money to support this dream had to come from somewhere. So with the skills I unconsciously acquired from my Ina, I began planning my future. I drew up a route to success which included getting a scholarship to study. To be eligible for that I needed to be very intelligent and very active in school activities as well as show leadership. I worked hard at all three. Yet I knew that was not enough to get a scholarship, I knew I needed to pick an area of which the government of Malaysia would need for nation building. 

Hence I chose electrical engineering, because that was the toughest engineering field of study that I knew then. However my mind changed after talking to a good friend. She told me I should read more about the field and maybe look up chemical engineering. As soon as she said that I was in the Penampang library looking up the field in every encyclopedia. It would be easier nowadays with Google. What I realized then changed my life forever. I was trained as a kid to make products, I was used to making processes work best to increase product quality. Then I knew this was the field of engineering for me.  

My path to getting a chemical engineering honors degree was challenging but rewarding. There was one point in which I almost did not make it. But perseverance , supportive classmates and prayers helped me through. I got my degree in 1999. I returned in high hopes of working in a highflying job and earning a lot of money. But in those days, jobs for chemical engineers were only abundant in Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak. I got a job as a salesperson instead. I was not disheartened, my application to be a tutor in UMS was approved and I jumped at the offer of becoming a tutor which would mean that, I would be sent off to do a Masters. I was very grateful for the opportunity to do a Masters, for I loved knowledge. Who knew then that, I would go on to do a PhD and return to Sabah with a lot more than I planned for. 

In reflection of the pass and present, I am at the peak of my career, I am doing what I love most hence I do not feel like I am working most of the time and plus I earn enough to be level with my peers. Can it get any better? Yes, I have a lot of ideas and proper planning in developing these ideas into products are in progress. I believe I am helping people in improving their lives and giving alternative energy choices to the community. I am also helping in my little way in building a great 1Malaysia. My Ina, the original process engineer, you inspired me and you taught me so many lessons which I still use up to today. Sadly she left us on the 2nd October, 2011, this was written as a tribute to her.  
The End.


This article is the longer version of an article I submitted to My Engineering Story Competition held by IEM Sabah. I posted this up in hopes of inspiring young minds to think big... Happy New Year 2012.

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