2016 Early Career Award: Q&A with James Hillier

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

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James Hillier

Chief of Staff for Global Manufacturing and Refining, LyondellBassell; BSChE ’00, BS Biochem ’00, BS molecular biology ’00,

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Early Career Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.


Why did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

I was pretty fortunate that my dad was a professor at UW-Stevens Point, and the summer before my senior year of high school, he elected not to teach the summer session and we spent the summer traveling around the country and looking at colleges. We looked at everything from large public to small liberal arts private schools—everything from engineering-heavy schools to ones without engineering programs. The aim was to see what I liked or didn’t like about colleges, and it helped me understand that a lot better, instead of seeing one or two schools. And at the end of the day, it came down to the University of Wisconsin and Cornell. Both were top-tier institutions (without pretentious attitudes). I decided to go to Madison because it shared Cornell’s standard of academics, but it also had everything else I wanted in a college.


Why did you choose engineering as your major?

That’s like the standard co-op question, and I don’t think my answer has really changed. In high school I was really lucky. I took a chemistry class that was co-taught by teachers who extolled the virtues of chemical engineering as a career. They found ways to integrate that into their classes. It was basically a preparatory class for going into an engineering major.


Who was your favorite engineering professor?

He may have retired, but it would be Professor Charles Hill in chemical engineering. He taught kinetics; he has my utmost respect for the high standard of education he provided, holding people accountable and giving tons of homework. Everyone was really bright, but it wasn’t enough to be smart in his classes; you had to work and apply your work to the problems you were working on. He made us sweat.


What was your favorite engineering class?

There is no doubt that it would be the summer lab in Madison. It was the ChE capstone lab course that was taught predominantly in the basement of the engineering building. There was no more hands-on and applicable class than that summer lab to prepare me for the petrochemical industry.


When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat or hang out on campus?

I have several and for different reasons. First is Mickey’s Dairy Bar—we went there for breakfast before band practice the morning of home football games. The second is Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry as an end-of-semester congratulatory meal, and on any day it was gorgeous outside, it would be the Memorial Union Terrace.


What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

Most of my fondest memories are tied in one way or another to marching band. I did marching band for five years as a tuba. There is no other opportunity like it to experience the Wisconsin Idea firsthand. We played at Rose Bowls, a Final Four tournament run, several other bowl games, every hockey and volleyball game we could get to, and got to tour around Wisconsin and the country, playing in parades and concerts. A lot of our lifelong friends are reformed band members, and that’s where I met my wife.


How did your experience in the College of Engineering shape your career path?

One of the things that really helped shape my career, and specifically my career in  chemical engineering, was that there wasn’t an overwhelming pressure to choose between industry or a graduate career path, and both were supported by the faculty. While the department encouraged finding your passion, a lot I also credit to Engineering Career Services, which was and is a great differentiator for the College of Engineering. I recruit for our company at colleges all over the country, and Madison is still one of the best at preparing students for future careers.


Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

One that comes to mind there, and it’s really a small group of dedicated folks over the years that I’ve worked on this with, is advancing co-op and new-hire engineer development with the company. This has been a focus area almost since I started with the company, and it’s become a strength of the company because we have a group who is passionate around early-career development.


Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

There are a lot of folks. I was fortunate early in my career, especially in the first three years I was an engineer, to have a small number of formal or informal mentors that really took the time and had the diligence to teach and mentor me about what it meant to be an engineer and a leader. They had high standards for what they expected young engineers to do and they were unapologetic about it.


What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

One piece of advice that I always give young engineers here is if someone takes the time to ask you to do something that maybe you don’t really want to do, the right answer is always yes. There’s probably a reason they’re asking you to do it, whether it is a special skillset or the capability that you have or they want to see you perform in a step-out role. Those types of roles have always given me differential opportunities to develop as an engineer. Even if something is hard, unglamorous, or out of your comfort zone, take it on.


If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

It’s hard to imagine another one, but I probably wouldn’t have ended up at Wisconsin if I didn’t go the engineering route. I probably would have gone to culinary arts school instead.


What are your hobbies/interests?

Cooking is one thing I’m most passionate about. My wife and I love to cook for ourselves and others and traveling to places that have good cuisine. Almost every aspect about where we eat when we’re on a trip will be thought out to avoid things that we make at home or to avoid fast food. I also love spending time with family and traveling, playing and watching sports, woodworking, and playing the piano and bass.

Author: Engineering External Relations