Meet a Woman of Asphalt: Modern Hydrogen’s Emily Houston
BY Leigh D’Angelo
Emily Houston has been instrumental in developing and deploying Modern Asphalt as an engineering technician at Modern Hydrogen, Bothell, Washington. Emily has worked on developing Modern Hydrogen’s material characterization capabilities and asphalt products. This has included designing/performing experiments at various scales, creating new asphalt product integrations for multiple product categories, authoring lab standard operating procedures, and leading Modern Hydrogen’s asphalt lab safety program.
Houston has a background in laboratory research with GC-MS, LC-MS, and TLC practices, and years of laboratory management experience. In her free time, Emily enjoys watercolor painting, cooking and video games. Modern Hydrogen CTO and Co-Founder Max Mankin describes her as a world-class problem-solver. “Her technical skills, willingness to troubleshoot problems without giving up, and eagerness to learn new things have enabled the creation of this revolutionary product,” he said.
Question: Could you share with the readers your career trajectory and what challenges you’ve overcome along the way?
Emily Houston: Over my time at Modern Hydrogen, I have switched roles a few times, starting as a junior technician, then moving to a fabrication coordinator role, and now as an engineering technician.
The main aspect that I have found challenging has been deciding what interested me, and what I liked working on, and then figuring out how to get there. I have always loved analytical chemistry and technical writing, but for a while in the beginning I was relying on organizational skills I had acquired in school to help coordinate fabrication jobs. After a while in that role, I felt that I wasn’t able to reach my full potential, and I still wanted to be in a chemistry role. I then reached out to HR and my manager at the time, and they helped me transition to the engineering technician role where I am now and have been for over a year. Since that change, I have felt that I am making a bigger impact with my work and am able to shine in a laboratory setting.
Question: How does your background and expertise in chemistry apply to your work with asphalt?
Emily Houston: I find that with asphalt, my chemistry background is helpful because of all the mix design options with asphalt and how to achieve certain viscosities that may be required for different road applications and environments.
Question: Could you share with the readers what your first job in the industry entailed and how those experiences helped you decide what you wanted to focus on for a career?
Emily Houston: My first job in this industry as a junior technician included tasks like organizing nuts and bolts, washing lab glassware, and occasional instances of assisting with experiments. These tasks helped me gain an understanding of the machines the teams I was supporting at the time were working with, and eventually, I was able to transition into a more specialized role as a result of these experiences.
Question: Could you share with the readers what your job as an engineering technician at Modern Hydrogen requires of you? What are some of your daily responsibilities?
Emily Houston: My current role as an engineering technician involves running and maintaining laboratory instruments, taking carbon samples for characterization and quality control, designing and executing in-house experiments for our asphalt ventures, and helping expand our carbon applications projects. A portion of my time is also spent meeting with potential customers and working with outside laboratories to arrange testing at scale or with certain equipment we cannot perform onsite.
Question: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position and how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone a similar skill?
Emily Houston: I believe that my willingness to jump into conversation when I have an idea or a new perspective to add has helped me the most.
A second runner up, though, would be having organizational skills. That has definitely played a big role.
I have also learned through my career so far, the importance of asking “why?” Specifically in situations where I would typically feel too shy to speak up, that is when it is the most important time to ask questions because you never know who else in the room is wondering the same thing. In some cases, the people in charge of a project get so caught up in their work that they may not stop and ask “why?” themselves and it may change the trajectory or outcome of a project as a result.
My advice to women wanting to enter or move up in this industry would be to be an information sponge and take every opportunity to sit in on or participate in. Every chance you get to be cross-trained is invaluable, even if you don’t think you would be interested, give it a try and you may be surprised that it’s not what you initially thought.
Question: What part of your education relates best to the career track you’re on? (And what courses would you recommend to women who want to join a company or association with a related focus?)
Emily Houston: I would say to take materials sciences courses, as well as civil engineering if that is your interest, and if possible, take summer introduction courses that you didn’t think you would be interested in for a career, it may surprise you. I took a summer course in sculptural MIG welding, and it taught me a lot about the materials I was working with, combined with having the creative freedom of it being an art course.
Question: What would you say was the most challenging “obstacle” you, as a female in the industry, had to overcome, and how DID you overcome that obstacle? How do you think other women in the industry can incorporate that skill or habit into their workdays?
Emily Houston: I think that for me personally, the largest obstacle is reteaching myself that I can be whatever or whoever I want to be. So many women experience a double standard and gender inequality from a very young age to where they may not even realize it because they’ve been conditioned to think less of themselves due to how others have treated them their whole life. For me, I had to realize that I had become my own obstacle; thinking that I could not do or be something I wanted to because I am a woman. I have since learned that has never been the case, and that I just needed to find my own self-worth and work towards the goals I set for myself.
Question: Let’s talk about your creativity. How are you able to use your creative side in this role?
Emily Houston: I love drawing and painting. One aspect of this role that really connected with my creativity was making Carbon Black Pigment. I brought the idea of making watercolor paint out of Modern Hydrogen’s captured carbon to my manager, and he was really excited. I ended up creating the watercolor, as well as an acrylic paint that is now to be used on murals at our facilities.
Question: Let’s talk about perceptions. What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt and/or chemistry-related business?
Emily Houston: I think that a lot of people assume that you need to be in the asphalt industry for many years to be able to contribute something new or useful to the community, but I believe that is false. At Modern Hydrogen, we are embracing the mentality of asking “why?” or in this case, “why not?” when it comes to adding our carbon to asphalt. In our case, it’s already making a huge impact in a short timeframe; we already have asphalt on the ground in five U.S. States within the first year of this project.
Question: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt industry?
Emily Houston: I think the most rewarding aspect of working in the asphalt industry is the possibilities for innovation and improvement. There are so many possibilities for improvement, and a lot of room to grow professionally, with a large potential impact on the environment and the future of the industry.