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Fundamentals fuel Meier’s momentum in research

Tribal member Steve Meier works for ExxonMobil, conducting research at the intersection of chemical engineering, physics and mathematics. He serves as the section head of Engineering Physics, which is part of the company’s Corporate Strategic Research division in New Jersey. The Lafromboise descendant began his career in the energy sector after completing his doctorate in chemical engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois in 2007.

Steve Meier continues his love of scientific research as he attempts to solve challenges in the energy industry at ExxonMobil. (Photo by Scott Janelli for ExxonMobil)

“What I really like about working at ExxonMobil is that we collaborate extensively,” Meier said. “I have very dedicated colleagues here, where everyone brings a different perspective based on both their training and their scientific experience.”

In 2014, the National Academy of Engineering selected Meier to participate in the annual Frontiers of Engineering Symposium. The organization brings together promising engineers from across industry, academia, and government labs to discuss their goals and interact about the future of the field.

His love for science began at a young age. Meier transferred from Chickasha High School to the Oklahoma School of Science and Math in Oklahoma City his junior year. Meier discovered his interest in chemical engineering after taking courses in physics and chemistry, which eventually led to a graduate degree from one of the country’s best research universities and employment at ExxonMobil.

Family base

Meier felt a connection to not only his future career while at Northwestern, but also to the university’s location as a member of a Great Lakes tribe.

“Knowing the story of the Potawatomi, especially our family, and the stories of when they left Chicago gave me a greater appreciation of the context of my own time there around Lake Michigan. Reflecting on their story was very personally meaningful while on my academic journey,” he said.

Generations of Meier’s family did not discuss their Potawatomi heritage. His maternal grandmother, Peggy McCreery, researched their lineage and passed it on to her children and grandchildren. Meier’s great-grandfather moved as a child with his family in the early 1900s from Kansas to present-day Pottawatomie County in Oklahoma.

“That means a lot to me. Just thinking about that story and that journey. It’s inspiring because I know that it is a story of people who were looking after their family and working very hard, looking for opportunity in the face of significant adversity,” he said.

Meier remembers attending Tribal events as a child and learning about the history of the last several generations of his family. As the father of two children, he now passes it on to them. They visit Oklahoma a couple of times a year and attend the Family Reunion Festival in the summer when possible. The 2019 Festival honored the Lafromboise family, and Meier made a point to participate. The CPN Cultural Heritage Center stood out along with the powwow and crafts.

“It was really nice to see how amazing of a collection the Heritage Center has and the way they tell the story about the Citizen Potawatomi Nation,” he said.

Excitement of research

As an undergrad, Meier found his passion for scientific research at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He began research in chemistry and chemical engineering after his freshman year, and that continued throughout college. His graduate studies at Northwestern focused on both the physical phenomena and the underlying mathematics of granular flows that lead to mixing. Flowing granular particles, such as sand, tend to separate based on their properties such as size and density. How that phenomena evolves depends on the characteristics of the flow. While at Northwestern, Meier received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2004.

At ExxonMobil, creating something new builds his excitement the most. Meier believes science’s fundamental principles serve as the foundation for development, and he keeps those at the forefront of his mind while working. Collaborating with scientific researchers and development engineers means using the group’s collective creativity to solve problems in novel ways.

“That really requires us to also then question if we have a new idea. So what is it that makes it new? Is it the confluence of new opportunities? Have there been scientific advances that have now put us in a position to see things differently?” he asked.

“And I think what gets me the most excited to come into work every day is seeing how those things all come together resulting in the opportunity to really create new options.”

Throughout the years, Meier’s work has been published in multiple publications and scientific journals, including Advances in Physics and the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. He is also an inventor, and his name appears on several patents for his contribution to engineering designs through his research.

“I’ve seen whenever we solve a problem or get an insight, that then leads others to think about a problem differently and then take a different approach,” he said. “There is a real sense of validation, as a scientist, to see that when you have that type of impact.”

“Dual challenge”

ExxonMobil is committed to doing their part to solve the “dual challenge” — providing reliable, affordable energy to support prosperity and enhance living standards, while reducing environmental impacts around the world.

Over the last few years, his role at the company moved from a research scientist to the head of a group of engineers and physicists working on those types of solutions.

“This is also society’s dual challenge and something that ExxonMobil takes very seriously. So that, I would say, underpins everything we do with our scientific research,” Meier said.

“What I work on is the fundamental science where we focus on the questions that we believe that underpin, say, the ability to reliably and effectively produce energy resources.”

Some of those goals include new methods of oil and gas extraction and exploration in various environments as well as the development of computational and numerical simulations of those methods. Those simulations could determine their effectiveness while significantly reducing environmental impact.

“We think very long-term. … So, there are extremely challenging scientific and technical challenges in front of us today and as we move forward,” he said.