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‘Come join me’: Award-winning engineer talks metallurgy, ‘Moonshiners’ and more

Lisa Czyszczewski’s advice to other women and girls considering a career in energy is simple.

“Be fearless,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of any of it — the science, the equipment, anything. I would also tell them that refining is incredibly fascinating, every aspect of it, and to come join me.”

Czyszczewski is the Refining Lead for Phillips 66’s Advanced Integrated Mechanical Integrity (AIMI) project to improve early detection of corrosion threats at the company’s refineries. She was recently honored as Woman Engineer of the Year at the inaugural Digital Engineering Awards, which celebrate engineers who are consistently redefining innovation, developing new technologies and championing the cause of sustainable change within the industry.

She sat down to talk about that and more with Phillips 66’s Corporate Communications.

You graduated from Rice University with a degree in Materials Science and Engineering. Describe what that is for the lay reader.

Disciplines such as chemical or mechanical engineering are pretty specific to one type of applied science. Materials Science is a little bit of everything. It’s very practical and hands on. It’s still a lot of chemistry, a lot of metallurgy — like how do things react with metal — but it’s also about the design and fabrication side of things and what materials are suitable for different applications.

I can imagine that sort of training and education carries over to many areas — even at home.

Oh, there’s a lot of household applications. If you have a metal shower rod and it starts pitting? Or fridge magnets that won’t stick to your stainless fridge? That’s metallurgy. That’s Corrosion 101.

That degree gives you a pretty handy party trick, too. I once sectioned a golf ball for some friends because they wanted to know if it was really titanium core. I can confirm: There was definitely some titanium.

Have you ever watched “Moonshiners”?

“Moonshiners” as in the TV show? No.

Well, if you did and you were a Materials Science engineer, you might notice that they’re always using copper stills to make their moonshine. And that’s because the copper helps remove impurities better than stainless steel, making the moonshine taste better. I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t studied what I did and worked in the refining industry.

You’ve now spent years working on the AIMI project for Phillips 66. Tell us a little about that.

AIMI is a mechanical integrity overhaul for the company. A big piece of it is inspection data. We’re working to get all of that into one system, sort of like an electronic medical file, a MyChart, for equipment. As an example, there are literally hundreds of miles of piping in a refinery. AIMI gives us at our fingertips information on when each piece of pipe was built, what is it made of, what’s exactly flowing inside of it, the range of operating temperature. Everything.

The project is really based around an industry tool called risk-based inspection. We put that system on the end of the data, and it’s like a prioritization tool. It tells us almost in real time which inspections are the most important and where the riskiest areas of the plant are so we can focus in.

What keeps you motivated?

For me, I never forget that even though we’re one of the safest industries in the world, what we do is dangerous work. And I’m at the point in my career — nearly 25 years in the industry now — where I’ve known people who’ve been injured. I just know the impact that that has, and I would do a lot, anything and everything, to keep that from ever happening.

If somebody who doesn’t put on the right safety gear gets injured, it’s terrible. But if they’re injured because of an equipment failure? That’s inexcusable in my mind.

You’re in a pretty niche area in the industry — inspections — that doesn’t boast a high percentage of female leaders. How have you navigated that?

I think I’ve managed because I just expect that everyone’s going to treat me respectfully and I treat everyone respectfully. And I think that’s where you start. I’ve also had a lot of great mentors, both men and women, who have believed in me and have guided me through. I do think it’s changed a lot in the last 25 years and we are in a better place, both with improving the culture in the industry and the addition of employment policies to help women balance their work lives. For me, a really positive sign is that there are more and more women doing this kind of work.

API (the American Petroleum Institute) recently started a Women in Mechanical Integrity networking group. It’s small, but it’s a good step, and I hope it leads to more women joining this journey.