Generous Gift Helps Chemical Engineering Grow Graduate Program

Generations of University of Virginia chemical engineering students had the privilege of studying with John Gainer, Donald Kirwan and the late Elmer Gaden. Each professor in his own way epitomized the dual commitment to research and education that distinguishes the UVA Engineering faculty.

Gaden was a member of the National Academy of Engineering who has been described as “the father of biochemical engineering.” Kirwan and Gainer also pursued groundbreaking research in pharmaceuticals. All three were popular teachers and influential mentors. Together, they inspired hundreds of students to embark on careers in chemical engineering.

To honor their legacy, an anonymous alumnus donated $200,000 to create a series of graduate fellowships. UVA Engineering, as part of its Graduate Fellows Initiative that provides funding to admit and pay for graduate students until they are established in faculty research programs, is matching this generous contribution. The resulting $400,000 fund provides first-year fellowships for nine chemical engineering graduate students. The awards will be made over two years.

“Our success as a department rests in large measure on our ability to build our graduate program around first-class students,” said William Epling, the department’s chair. “Great graduate students help us attract ambitious faculty and talented undergraduates.”

Graduate students supported by the fellowships will help boost the volume and impact of the department’s research program while enriching undergraduate education by serving as teaching assistants and mentors.

Epling notes that these first-year fellowships are particularly valuable in helping faculty members accumulate the data needed to translate innovative ideas into fundable projects.

“The fellowships give faculty members the confidence to extend offers to top graduate students before applying for the external funding that’s the traditional source of the students’ support,” Epling said. “Fellowships also give graduate students an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of promising research.”

There is an abundance of high-potential research underway in the department. To cite just a few examples, Professor Robert Davis has been using his expertise in catalysis to help develop methods to produce commodity and specialty chemicals from carbohydrate feedstocks that are as robust and cost-effective as systems based on fossil-derived hydrocarbons. Professor Roseanne Ford, known for her work manipulating bacterial chemotaxis for remediation of water pollution, is applying her insights into health care to control infectious diseases. And Assistant Professors Kyle Lampe and Steven Caliari are developing soft materials for such therapeutic applications as regenerating central nervous system tissue and treating fibrosis.

Although their areas of specialization may differ, current faculty members are following in the footsteps of Gaden, Gainer and Kirwan in their commitment to conduct research that benefits society. Gaden was among the first to see the potential of harnessing biological processes to produce chemicals. His groundbreaking dissertation in 1949 focused on determining the optimal amount of oxygen to allow greater fermentation energy for penicillin mold to grow and multiply more rapidly. This research formed the basis for mass production of a wide range of antibiotics, saving countless lives. In 2009, the NAE awarded him the Russ Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of engineering.

Gainer’s exploration of the mechanisms of action of oxygen diffusion-enhancing compounds led to his invention of trans sodium crocetinate, or TSC. TSC shows promise for treatment of such conditions as hemorrhagic shock, stroke and heart attack, where tissues are starved for oxygen. Diffusion Pharmaceuticals, which Gainer co-founded in 2001, is currently investigating the use of TSC to improve the efficacy of treatments for brain and pancreatic cancers.

Kirwan also focused on biochemical engineering. He specialized in the recovery of biochemicals through crystallization and precipitation. He worked to achieve a fundamental understanding of the solubility relations, nucleation rates, growth kinetics and particle morphology needed to produce complex organic pharmaceuticals.

All three professors were also distinguished by their excellence as educators and service to the department. They were much-beloved teachers, devoted to their students. Both Gaden and Kirwan chaired the department. Not surprisingly, UVA Engineering presented all three with its Mac Wade Award, which is given for superior service to the School. Gainer also won the UVA Alumni Association’s Distinguished Professor Award.

Their influence on students is also a function of their longevity. Kirwan was a member of the department for 48 years, Gainer 39 and Gaden 15. Epling views the first-year fellowships funded by the department’s alumni donor as a way to launch members of the current generation on similarly long and productive careers.

“I hope that other alumni and friends of the department will consider adding their contributions to our Gaden, Gainer and Kirwan Fellowships to help us extend the program beyond its initial two years,” Epling said. “It’s a gift that has both immediate and lasting impact.”

The matching grant program is expected to be in effect through the end of October 2018, with $200,000 in matching funds still available for creating named fellowships.

John Gainer, Donald Kirwan and Elmer Gaden

Chemical engineering professors John Gainer, Donald Kirwan and Elmer Gaden