By Amy Whiteman Sherrill

Amy Whiteman Sherrill: WAP Woman Wednesday

In this regular feature, we hear from women academics and professionals about their lives, their faith, and the way it all intersects. Pull up a chair and join us as we chat with chemical engineer Amy Sherrill.

Welcome, Amy! Tell us about yourself.

Name: Amy Whiteman Sherrill

Current position: Manager, Innovation and Research at Printpack

Current location: Atlanta, Georgia

Schools attended: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), B.S. Chemical Engineering/Minor in Spanish; Georgia Tech, M.S. Chemical Engineering

Tell us something fun or unique about your work and research.

While some of our products are behind-the-scenes, we also get to work on some popular consumer products; it’s very rewarding to walk down the supermarket aisle or into a home improvement store or a restaurant and see something you’ve developed on the shelf or in use.

Way back in the Stone Age when I was an intern, I worked for Ore-Ida Foods for two summers (Ore-Ida was headquartered in my hometown of Boise, Idaho), and had the privilege of saving tater tots for humanity! Ore-Ida produced tater tots at its plant in Plover, Wisconsin, and was having trouble with the fryer and the associated equipment. Imagine a huge conveyor belt — at least six feet wide — coming out of an enormous industrial fryer and a gradient of tots all burnt on one side of the conveyor and all still raw on the other side. NOT GOOD. The plant was having to throw all but a tiny strip of tots in the center away, as the burned and raw tots were all waste — lost sales, angry customers, and hungry consumers deprived of potato goodness.

During my first summer as an intern, I was assigned to fix this critical tater tot problem. Many fluid dynamics and heat transfer calculations later, I recommended several changes to the fryer, manifold, pumps, etc., and then headed back to MIT for the fall semester. Fast forwarding to my second summer with Ore-Ida, I was assigned completely different projects, but had the opportunity to visit the Plover plant for a meeting. During a break, I went out (in my extremely flattering oversized full-body fire suit) to the tater tot line. Perfect golden crispy tots were sailing along all the way across the conveyor. 

I asked the operator, “How’s the line running?”

“Great,” he replied.

“Didn’t this line used to have some problems with uneven cooking?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he responded. “Some intern from Corporate spec’d new pumps and piping and such last summer, and now it’s all good.”

MOST FABULOUS PROFESSIONAL FEELING EVER! Whenever you eat a delicious tater tot, think of me.

What was the hardest part of grad school and what kept you sane?

During grad school, we lived in Loganville, Georgia, as my husband was at UGA while I was at Georgia Tech. Accordingly, I had a rough commute on the best of days. My thesis project involved live cells and serum heated to precise temperatures (or the cells would die) and notoriously finicky equipment, and most trials had to run overnight. I would therefore have to drive to Tech in the middle of the night to check on everything, and there was usually a traffic stop on the way in which the police were trying to catch drunk drivers. I don’t drink, so I was never worried about being busted, but it was frustrating to have to waste time explaining my research project to the police every week at 2:00 a.m. when I desperately wanted to get home to bed.

Really the most difficult part of grad school was that the project I was assigned was a poor fit for a master’s student. In my advisor’s group, it was common for grad students to take a year or two to get reliable data given the instability of the equipment and other issues. A PhD student who’s expecting to spend at least four (and usually more like five or six) years in graduate school can handle waiting a year to get good data — but a master’s student who wants to finish in two or three years can’t! 

Grad school was a tough time, and I was also a new bride learning how to handle the ups and downs of marriage. My faith and fellow believers kept me sane — I knew that I had value and a purpose beyond whatever happened with my thesis project. We were active in church in Loganville and found ministries to serve in and built friendships with older couples who could share a “this too shall pass” perspective with us.

What do you love most about your job right now?

I love having the opportunity to be a positive influence on the associates who report to me, as well as on other colleagues. It’s a joy to help my team become more aware of their strengths and development opportunities and help them find ways to stretch and grow their technical skills as well as their emotional intelligence.

I’m on the leadership team for Printpack’s company-wide women’s network; I also lead our She-Nerds lunches (for women with technical backgrounds in a variety of functions) and our Marketing/Technical Women’s Forum (for women in my own functional group). Through these groups I’m able to help women across the company connect and grow professionally in our extremely male-dominated manufacturing organization. It’s an honor to be the wind beneath my colleagues’ wings and see them learn how to fly!

How does your faith inform the way you think about or do your work?

My faith is at the core of my approach to work. It forms the basis of how I treat people at work: I believe every associate has value, regardless of title or tenure — because we are all created in God’s image, and he is not a respecter of titles or executive perquisites. Although there are books and speakers and resources that recommend a servant leadership model from a secular perspective, in Jesus I find the ultimate model of a servant leader, and he is my example as I lead my group and other teams across the company.

Scripture commands us to do our work with excellence, as if we were serving God directly, and teaches us that our work — even in the secular workplace — has value in bringing order to God’s created world. Therefore, I am empowered to strive for excellence in my work and I can have confidence that it has meaning. 

Finally, while my faith teaches me every day that I am a sinner, I also know that I’m saved, and that God has blessed me with talents and gifts that he expects me to use. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work without faith and the inner confidence and sense of purpose that it brings.

NOTE: These comments are the author's personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the positions of her employer.

About the Author

Amy Whiteman Sherrill is a chemical engineer.

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