Women Behind Innovation: Stephanie Potisek

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Stephanie Potisek, Ph. D. is the Oil Sands R&D Manager in Dow’s Oil, Gas & Mining Group where she oversees the development of new products for both oil sands mining and in-situ oil and gas operations.  Dr. Potisek has over 9 years of industrial R&D experience at The Dow Chemical Company, where she has brought in over $500,000 in new product sales while contributing to over 13 patents and being honored as an R&D 100 finalist.  Previous to her current role, Dr. Potisek held technical oversight for the Flow Assurance Platform where she drove the development of antiscalants and led the commercialization of novel pour point depressants while also establishing a new antiscalant platform for the industrial water treatment group. Prior to transitioning into Oil, Gas & Mining, Dr. Potisek used her organic and polymer chemistry expertise to create new epoxy materials for Dow’s Epoxy Product R&D group.  Dr. Potisek has also led Dow’s Ph. D. candidate recruiting efforts at the University of Illinois for the past 7 years and is also a member of Dow’s Texas Operations STEM Steering Team.  Dr. Potisek obtained her doctorate degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois and her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Cornell University.

The Edison Awards recently spoke with Potisek about her interest in science, what misconceptions she feels people have about the fields and some of her career highlights. Here’s what she had to say:(edited for brevity and clarity)

When did your interest in science or engineering begin?

I was always interested in science and math.  My parents encouraged my curiosity by giving me math problems on long car rides and buying me a chemistry set when I was 10.  Throughout school, I enjoyed the sciences and in high school, I had a great chemistry teacher Mr. Fredericks that supported my entrance into a science competition.  That was my first exposure to research endeavors and technical presentations, and it was an incredibly fun and positive experience.

What was it like to be a woman studying in your field?

As a student, I didn’t feel that being a woman in science differentiated me in any way.  I was always supported by my teachers, professors, and family.  As I’ve matured, I’m hoping that I can be a positive role model for younger women that may not have the encouragement that I did.

What do you like about your field and what you do?

I love a challenge and I love problem solving.  Being a scientist allows me to do these things by creating new inventions that impact society, and I currently work on developing new chemicals for the oil and gas industry.  The chemical field itself certainly has a number of misconceptions, but the chemical industry has enabled fantastic new technologies, and without these, we would not be able to do the most basic of tasks.  Everything from the soles in your shoes, to the seats in the car you drive, to artificial turf, to the ink in your printer, and the gasoline in your car are made possible by advances in the chemical industry.

What are some career highlights?

As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I worked on the development of mechanochromic materials, which are materials that change color in response to mechanical stress.  Imagine tamper-resistant materials that change color when the seal has been broken.  This work was cutting edge and very exciting.  When I started at I Dow, I transitioned to working on the development of new products for the electronics industry.  We created new materials that enabled the densification of electronics and enable even more powerful electronics in smaller and smaller forms.  After 5 years, I decided to apply my skills to the oil and gas industry and recently led the development of new environmentally friendly wax inhibitors.  These was inhibitors prevent oil pipelines from plugging and they do it with environmentally friendly materials.  Now I lead our Oil Sands technology group on projects such as tailings remediation to aid in cleaning up the tailings ponds in Canada and also energy reduction for in-situ oil extraction processes to remove oil that is otherwise very difficult to access.

How is your company bringing innovation to the forefront?

The Dow Chemical Company is a science company driven by innovation and the development of new products.  We have state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, and experts in nearly any discipline you can imagine.  It’s this combination of internal tools, combined with close customer collaboration that enable us to be successful.  We work closely with our customers and are involved in the design process to ensure mutual success.

To date, what project is your greatest success?

Most recently I worked on a new environmentally-friendly formulation to treat wax in crude oil pipelines.  The temperature of crude oil in the ground is quite hot, but it cools as it is pumped out of the well.  This change in temperature causes waxes in the crude oil to buildup on the pipelines, similar to plaque in arteries, and ultimately causes lines to plug.  I led a project to develop an environmentally friendly product to prevent the wax from depositing.  The interesting part of the story is that it started by taking a technology from the coatings industry and applying it to the oil and gas industry.  Often, inspiration comes from outside sources, and this was one of those instances.  We also had a diverse team composed of engineers, chemists, interfacial scientists, and analytical scientists, which was important in making the project successful.  The team applied the technology first on the bench at the lab scale.  We eventually made tons of material for field trials and commercial sales.  It was really exciting to lead the team through this development and being able to implement a positive change in the industry. We received both internal and external awards for this work.

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Mellissa Hopkins

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