Rice student balances chemical engineering with leadership

Alexandra Africano chose MEML program to better impact energy industry

Alexandra Africano MEML student

Alexandra Africano was reading “The New Map” by Daniel Yergin during her senior year as a chemical engineering undergraduate student when she realized an advanced degree would help her make a more meaningful difference in the energy industry. Unwilling to abandon her discipline, she discovered Rice University’s Master of Engineering Management and Leadership (MEML) program would provide the leadership exposure she wanted while also advancing her path in chemical engineering. 

 “In the current global energy landscape, there is this interplay between emerging technical advances and opportunities in energy transition and climate change. I wanted to learn more -- needed to learn more-- about these advances and about decision-making processes if I was going to climb the ladder to a place where I could make an impact,” said Africano. 

Two weeks after completing her B.S. in Chemical Engineering, Africano moved to Houston to begin her graduate degree as a MEML student. 

“Rice’s engineering leadership curriculum included the kind of specialized training that would enable me to better understand the energy challenges we face and empower me to suggest new approaches to those issues,” she said. “I knew the MEML program would be a catalyst for my growth in the industry, and I chose Rice specifically because its reputation would lend authority to my early contributions.”

She also chose it because her comparisons of similar programs made Rice’s unique environment stand out. Africano was impressed by the university’s breadth of innovation and discovery, where entrepreneurship and research opportunities are available to students at all levels of study.

“Now when I imagine creative disruption, I immediately think of Rice,” she said. “I was intrigued by the rigor of the program because I really love to be challenged and it seemed a good match for my capacity. Rice is also in the news a lot for its collaborations to improve the environment and how we spend our natural resources. "

“But it was probably Rice’s commitment to diversity and inclusion that really caught my attention. I come from a different background, a different country, and I didn’t speak English well when I began my undergraduate degree in the United States. Rice just seemed the kind of place where I would feel embraced and at home.”

Settling into her classes and activities, Africano immediately recognized how the program’s framework would prepare her to be a strong leader in the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0 or I4). Just as importantly, she expanded her mastery of chemical engineering to include fluid mechanics and transport processes, reaction engineering and plant design.

“One of the things I love about this program is how we can be both engineers and leaders. In MEML we say, ‘The goal is not to leave engineering but to lead engineering.’ As a future energy leader, I can never forget the engineering that will drive I4 into the next decade,” she said.

“Data science is a critical aspect of the digitalization that is contributing to the industrial revolution, so of course data analysis, programming, machine learning, and AI are part of our curriculum. But we’re also learning how to link technical expertise and advances to decision making.”

At the end of her first semester as a MEML student, Africano was hired as a data science and statistics teaching assistant (TA). She also secured a summer role as a Process and Controls Engineering Intern with one of the largest privately held organizations in the United States, thanks in part to her Rice connections and activities.

Her advice to prospective and new MEML students is to explore and enjoy a wide range of activities at Rice. She recommends attending many networking events and company visits to learn more about different industries and what is important to the engineers in each one. 

“And take advantage of the Rice alumni mentorship program,” said Africano. “My mentor has a chemical engineering background plus years of experience working around the world, including in my home country. It was great to share stories of the place, and talking to someone who is thriving on a path I hope to follow has been crucial for me. 

“Finally, talk to your professors all the time. I can’t express enough how much I have learned from the MEML professors; they are here to help us and all of them want to see us succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. They have a deep well of experience and we want to drink from that water!”

Learn more about Rice University's Master of Engineering Management and Leadership program at our upcoming information sessions