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To celebrate women in science, a shark of a tale

Laura Nichols has parlayed a love of science — and sharks — into an impressive career in the energy industry. She is the first female director of the Phillips 66 laboratory at the Sweeny Refinery, the largest refinery lab in the company’s portfolio.  

“I always knew I wanted to be in a scientific field, but it was supposed to be on a marine research vessel,” she said of her childhood obsession with Shark Week on Discovery Channel.  

Feb. 11 marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and Nichols is one of many women in leadership positions at Phillips 66. The company continues to prioritize workforce diversity — 47% of new hires from universities in 2020 were women. 

Nichols initially followed her passion by studying marine biology in college. Her destiny took a turn when she started working at a “small mom and pop petroleum lab” in Fort Worth, Texas, to gain hands-on scientific experience. After stints at other labs, she eventually was hired as a manager at the Phillips 66 Rodeo Refinery lab in 2016 and then moved to Sweeny in 2019.   

“I was given some amazing opportunities with this company,” Nichols said. “I've had leaders believe and trust in what I do.”  

Nichols leads 40 lab technicians and chemists who perform essential tasks ranging from quality control to certifying finished products. She gushes over her “really incredible crew, built of different generations, ethnicities and backgrounds.” She still feels the wonder of scientific discovery, observing chemical reactions and exploring how substances can be separated and mixed.   

Her office is adorned with snapshots of refinery events, including Halloween parties and United Way campaigns. A nameplate on her desk reads “Boss Lady,” and a large print of a shark looms behind her chair.  

Just down the hall, a wall of portraits represents the history of Sweeny Refinery laboratory directors — 11 men and one woman. 

Nichols is proud of joining that wall and has some advice for young girls. “If your heart desires science, then you should do whatever you can to make that happen,” she said.  

And what about that other dream? Nichols made that come true when she swam with great whites off the coast of California.  “I can go play with sharks whenever I want,” she said.   

(Pictured at top, from left: Laura Nichols, Lab Director at the Phillips 66 Sweeny Refinery; Alyssa Chinen-Mendez, Batteries Team Lead for Energy Research & Innovation at Phillips 66; Yvette Lemon, Chem Tech at Sweeny Refinery; Whitney Spencer, Technician for Energy Research & Innovation; Molly Merritt, Technician, Lubricants R&D.)