National Engineers Week alumni feature: Lori Shaffer, P.E., '94
Chemical engineering alumna, Lori Shaffer, P.E. ‘94.
When Lori Shaffer, P.E., ‘94, had to decide on the college program that would shape the course of her career, she knew it had to be chemical engineering.
“I love mathematics and chemistry. My dad was a civil engineer. So I chose chemical engineering. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I did a couple of internships and fell in love with it,” she said.
A few years later, she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, a degree in chemistry and a minor in mathematics.
Now Shaffer puts her WVU Tech education to use at Columbia Pipeline Group as Lead Gas Quality Engineer. She’s responsible for monitoring gas quality in the company’s more than 15,000 miles of pipeline stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to New York and from Virginia to Indiana.
“I’m responsible for monitoring the quality of the gas coming into our pipelines to ensure it meets the limits set by our tariff. As part of that, I do a lot of electronic monitoring of receipt points into the gas pipeline. The general idea is that I keep the bad gas out and make sure that gas is flowing in a way that ensures our pipeline is safe and reliable,” she said.
Shaffer has held a number of titles in her engineering career. She started out at Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) as a production engineer, where she worked in a chemical plant making sure the facility produced products in a safe and efficient way. She was also given the reins over some major plant projects.
“I was the field engineer over the installation of a large enclosed filtration system for one of the chemicals we produced. It was a large-capital project. I was the field contact, so I had to commission it. It was a new piece of equipment that no one else in the company had worked with before. It was a little daunting, but we made it work,” she said.
In 2001 Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide. Shaffer moved into a supply chain role within the company, working as a production planner and scheduler. She monitored product orders and inventory. In that role, she coordinated the activity of reactors, drumming stations and tank car racks to make sure the facility was effectively meeting client demand.
Shaffer became a certified Six Sigma Black Belt, which gave her specialized training in using data to find and eliminate weaknesses and defects in processes. She put those skills to work in project management where her mission was to save the company money and remove inefficiencies in different plant processes.
This love for logistics led to one of Shaffer’s favorite projects. At Dow, she was charged with examining logistics for the company’s chemicals business across the entire country.
“We had drums of materials stored in several facilities across the country because that was the previous company’s model. They kept a little bit of inventory close to each customer base. They would ship ten drums to a location and monitor when the customer had used that up. That turned out to be a very costly way of doing things,” she said.
“Dow wanted me to optimize that network, and to look at how we could still offer great service to our customers who needed product quickly. The project took a lot of data analysis and looking at logistics networks to come up with a solution. We settled on a centralized storage facility. We could ship full truckloads of material from there to our customers or to a satellite area, and I was able to save the company over a million dollars in logistics costs in that project. It was pretty awesome,” she said.
Shaffer worked in logistics for a few companies after Dow, and left the chemical business in 2009. She decided to try her hand at teaching and became an instructor in WVU Tech’s engineering technology department. She taught industrial and mechanical engineering technology classes at her alma mater for three years.
After her time at Tech, Shaffer joined Columbia as an operations analyst. That position required her to analyze data from natural gas compressors, or the massive, motor-driven devices that compress natural gas so that pipelines stay pressurized and gas keeps moving. Her analysis allowed the company to predict potential failures in these compressors and get ahead of the game on their maintenance.
Soon after, Shaffer moved into her new position in gas quality, where she said her education and training has come full circle.
“I have to apply my chemistry and chemical engineering education because I have to understand the chemistry of all of the impurities that come up from the ground in natural gas and how those constituents interact with each other. I also have to understand fluid dynamics, so this job is calling on everything I learned at Tech,” she said.
In order to monitor gas quality in the pipeline system, the company uses a network of gas chromatographs. These devices are used to determine the chemical makeup of natural gas flowing through various receipt points where natural gas enters the system.
To operate properly, these gas chromatographs require the use of a calibration gas. When the company recently needed to find a new vendor for that gas, they relied on Shaffer’s expertise to make it happen.
“I’ve been interviewing vendors, doing site visits and auditing businesses to see if they’re capable of handling our needs. So now that we’ve settled on a new vendor, I’m taking new information and a new ordering process and rolling it out to our field employees because they’re the ones who work with the calibration gas. There’s a lot of coordination that goes into even the simplest changes when you’re working on a system of this scale,” she said.
For Shaffer, this kind of problem solving is just part of the day-to-day in chemical engineering. It’s a field she said works behind the scenes to make products people use every day.
“Chemical engineers make just about anything you touch, from the plastics in sandwich bags to the gum you’re chewing. Wrigley’s bubblegum base is made right here at a chemical plant in Charleston. The de-icer that allows airplanes to take off safely and the brake fluid used in GM cars are made here, too. Car dashboards are manufactured using the same polyvinyl resin as the bubblegum base,” she said.
“That’s the thing about chemical engineers. If we don’t have them, then there’s no one out there to make all this stuff we use on a daily basis,” she said.
Shaffer lives in Charleston, West Virginia with her husband Paul, a 2008 graduate of WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program who also works at Columbia. The couple has two young children. Their son plays hockey for a traveling team and their daughter plays volleyball, so the family spends much of their free time traveling.
Shaffer is a member of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the Institute of Industrial Engineers and the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association. She also holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Marshall University. While at Tech, she was a founding sister of the University’s Alpha Sigma Tau (AST) sorority and remains active in the organization.
She’s built an impressive career on her love of chemistry and mathematics, and said that one of her greatest rewards is being able to give back through mentorships. Through programming at Columbia, she’s been able to work with an intern each summer to show these young students what a STEM career could mean for them.
“I have the opportunity to help shape and guide their working lives and help them get through school. I’m fortunate to have this opportunity. Two of the students that have worked for me are now with the company full time. That’s so rewarding,” she said.
For new grads heading out into the field, she said the oil and gas industry is going to be an area of opportunity for chemical engineers in the coming decades, particularly in distribution, transmission and drilling. Regardless of which field newcomers choose, she said that chemical engineers can be confident in that they’ll always have a place to work.
“STEM degrees are powerful. You know there’s always going to be innovation. You always need someone to keep processes moving along. You will always have a job. It’s not always going to be your dream job, but you’ll be able to find work somewhere because STEM and engineering degrees are so versatile,” she said.
“My background proves it. I’ve done everything from true production engineering to supply chain, logistics and higher education. An engineering background doesn’t just teach you how to engineer. It teaches you how to think logically and apply problem-solving to the world around you, no matter where that is or what you’re doing,” she said.