From freezing a roll of wet, color-dyed toilet paper and other household items in the fridge of her family kitchen to study how their properties changed to seeing her chemical engineer mother who worked at Clorox test out various cleaning and mopping products in their home, the young Claire Huestis was a budding engineer even before she turned nine years old when she lost her mother to cancer.
“My mom was the biggest influence in kick starting my interest in STEM,” said the UCLA alumna and now process engineer at Amgen, a leading biotechnology and pharmaceutical company headquartered in Thousand Oaks, California. “Although she was only with me for the early years of my life, she left a huge impact. She helped spark my curiosity about the natural world, and a love for learning about it.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the suburb of San Ramon, Huestis was encouraged by her mother to continue her experiments even as her older brother complained about the freezer being filled up with the specimens instead of food.
After her mother’s passing, Huestis’ family moved to San Jose, where she continued her love for problem solving and experimenting, with math and science being her two favorite subjects. In her first physics class in high school, Huestis was drawn to the project of building and testing the strength of a bridge made with toothpicks. This experience helped her decide to pursue an engineering major in college.
Instead of applying to a four-year university, Huestis chose to follow her brother’s footsteps in attending Las Positas Community College in Livermore. In her first semester, she took an introduction to engineering course at Las Positas, which required the students to interview an engineer of their choosing.
By that time, her brother had graduated from UC Davis as a transfer student and was working at PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) as a mechanical engineer. He helped connect her to one of the chemical engineers at the company because she was most curious about the field due to their mother’s work. Out of all the rooms in the PG&E facility she toured, Huestis said she was most fascinated by the chemistry lab.
“I was mesmerized by the machinery and methods used to analyze chemical compounds, and this cemented my interest in the chemical engineering discipline,” she recalled the moment that she discovered chemical engineering was her true calling — just as it was for her late mother.
When it came time to transfer, Huestis was looking for a change of pace and scenery from Northern California. She was especially attracted to UCLA Samueli School of Engineering’s strong academics and the big city environment in Los Angeles, where she would be able to explore music, food and art. But UCLA, with its fast-paced quarter system and rigorous curriculum, proved challenging to the newly transferred junior. Not one to shy away from a problem, Huestis was motivated to turn her tumultuous start into an opportunity for success, with the support of fellow classmates and various study groups.
By the end that year, Huestis was thriving in her studies and appointed as an undergraduate laboratory assistant in the Chemical Engineering Department, where she independently oversaw 14 experiments for two undergraduate chemical engineering laboratory classes that allowed nearly 50 students per quarter to carry out their experimental investigations. Working with her professor, she also helped design new experiments used for the curriculum, including one that demonstrates the impact of viscosity on a liquid’s flow rate.
Outside of the classroom, Huestis found a community in the UCLA chapter of the Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and Bruin Toastmasters. Through AIChE, she gained industry connections from its networking events, job fairs and company tours. Bruin Toastmasters, on the other hand, provided a safe space for her to hone her skill in public speaking.
Upon graduating from UCLA with her bachelor’s degree in 2018, Huestis spent three years at Amgen as a downstream pilot plant associate, where she immersed herself in learning about the purification operations for manufacturing early- and late-stage biologic pharmaceuticals, while managing several technical projects. Wanting to advancing her engineering expertise and developing her leadership skills for an engineering management position, Huestis decided to pursue a master’s degree at UC Berkeley, specializing in biotechnology product development.
With an advanced degree in hand, Huestis applied for, and landed, her current position at Amgen with the encouragement of a mentor from the company. She is now in charge of providing technical support of purification drug substance processes for clinical and commercial programs.
“UCLA prepared me for my professional career through exposure to a broad network of industry connections,” Huestis said of her experience as a Bruin. “Between guest speakers, career fairs, workshops and faculty connections, there was an abundance of ways to learn about professional life after school.”
As she forges ahead in the career she has built, Huestis holds fast to the lessons learned, the connections made and the unquenchable curiosity that started it all.
To aspiring engineers following a similar path, Huestis stressed the importance of developing a network and seeking opportunities outside of the classroom.
“I’ve found the professional relationships built with others to be the most valuable for building a career. Pushing oneself to make those connections is the first step,” she said.