Bruin Chemical Engineer and Navy Veteran on Military vs. Civilian Careers

Karyn Lee

Courtesy of Karyn Lee
Karyn Lee at her graduation ceremony from the Navy’s nuclear power training program in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nov 15, 2023

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Throughout the 2013 football season, Karyn Lee ’15 often could be found at the Rose Bowl running up and down the steps and leading the famous UCLA “Eight Clap” cheer with the Bruin fans. That same Yell Crew leader got her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering two years later and joined the U.S. Navy’s Naval Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) Program as a nuclear surface warfare officer.

It was the beginning of a six-year career in the Navy, which saw Lee rise to the rank of lieutenant. Now a process engineer at Kite Pharma, a biopharmaceutical firm specializing in cell therapy for specific indications of blood cancers, Lee has made the pivot from a career in the military to that of a civilian.

“I think two things have been valuable in my career: the engineering way of thinking and being willing to ask questions,” Lee said. “On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked to assess an unfamiliar process. I was able to identify abnormalities by identifying the patterns and figuring out relevant questions, which I attribute to the engineering thought process. Then the other piece of the puzzle is having the guts to actually ask questions even when I am uncomfortable with the subject matter.”

Growing up in Folsom, California (a suburb outside Sacramento), Lee is the second oldest of four children with two sisters and a brother. She started studying martial arts when she was 9 years old and earned a black belt in Bok Fu. The experience, she says, taught her the importance of discipline and toughness that would serve her well later in the challenging military environment.

Lee has also always loved math and science. Her father, a computer scientist, would come to her elementary school every year during National Engineers Week and challenged her class to build something on their own. In high school, Lee liked biology and chemistry, and worked as a math tutor. She knew she wanted to pursue a college degree in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Since she was surrounded by engineers, including friends’ parents in the field, it was an easy decision to major in engineering when it came time to apply to college. And becoming a Bruin was a dream come true for Lee because she wanted to go to a bigger school and loved the UCLA campus, where she would be exposed to diverse people and ideas.

At UCLA, Lee found mentorship through the campus chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which inspired her to seek out internship opportunities, including working at Northrop Grumman and Phillips 66. 

“If you’re fortunate to be offered an internship position, do it,” Lee said. “Every internship I’ve had has given me a taste of the company’s culture and helped me gain work experience in a relevant field. Even if it does not lead to a permanent position or offer the most enjoyable experience, you’ll be better off with the insight and experience you gained.”

“Having an engineering education is such a privilege because it is so versatile,” Karyn Lee said. “Applied in
the right way, it’s a really powerful tool that can be used to make the world a better place.”

As a sophomore, Lee was intrigued when she came across the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) Program.

“I really wanted to use my engineering background toward a mission I was passionate about,” said Lee of her decision to join the program after she graduated from UCLA in 2015. “I love my country, and my STEM background would be put to good use operating the nuclear reactors on an aircraft carrier.”

She trained and earned her commission through the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. She began her first tour in February 2017, working as the missile systems program manager for nearly two years on the USS Carney — a 505-foot Arleigh Burke- class guided-missile destroyer stationed in Rota, Spain. She learned how to drive the ship and was in charge of maintaining the ship’s missile-launching system. While spending half the time out at sea, she managed to visit 10 different countries through various ports of calls.

Lee’s next two tours brought her back to the stateside. She spent one year stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed the Navy’s nuclear power training, including learning how to operate a decommissioned submarine’s nuclear reactor. For her final tour, she spent two years stationed in San Diego, California, working as the chemistry and radiological controls manager on the USS Abraham Lincoln — a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. In addition to operating the ship’s two nuclear reactors to provide electricity and propulsion for the 5,000-person carrier, she was also responsible for the proper chemical maintenance and handling of radioactive materials.

As she prepared to leave the Navy and resume her life as a civilian, Lee was able to take advantage of the Department of Defense’s SkillBridge Program, which helps service members gain civilian work experience through training, apprenticeships, or internships during their last six months of service.

Through the program, Lee completed a business, strategy and operations fellowship at Kite. Learning to network within the company enabled Lee to learn about different positions until she found the right fit as a process engineer. She and her group serve as site-based subject matter experts for the company’s clinical cell therapy manufacturing processes. They facilitate transfer of new processes from the design team to their manufacturing colleagues, while driving, formulating and evaluating process improvements that may gain operational efficiency or benefit patients.

Looking back on her military career, Lee advised students interested in joining the military to research different positions and talk to those who have served so that they will have realistic expectations. 

“Unlike a typical civilian job, joining the military is a pretty big commitment — usually at least four years — and a huge lifestyle change!”

As she successfully transitioned to working in industry, Lee credits her engineering education for helping her navigate both her military and civilian career paths.

“Having an engineering education is such a privilege because it is so versatile,” Lee said. “Applied in the right way, it’s a really powerful tool that can be used to make the world a better place.” 

Brynn Beatty contributed to this story.

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