The Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia School of Engineering demonstrated a remarkable range of cutting-edge and difference-making research at its inaugural symposium for graduate student research on Friday, April 26.

The half-day event concluded with a poster session in which 30 projects highlighted research in clean energy production and storage, biomedical engineering such as tissue regeneration and therapies for cancer, fibrosis and other conditions; water purification, mitigating emissions in diesel engines; and much more.

The Chemical Engineering Research Symposium, nicknamed CHEERS, brought together graduate students, faculty, alumni and industry experts to showcase research in the department and create networking opportunities for students. A committee of the Chemical Engineering Graduate Board initiated and organized the symposium with participation and support from student presenters and volunteers. Committee members included Katelyn Dagnall and Erica Hui, board president and vice president respectively; last year’s board president Stephanie Guthrie, third-year Ph.D. student Kevin Chang, and first-year Ph.D. students Greg Grewal and Colby Whitcomb. The board plans to make it an annual event.

Panelists speak to symposium attendees

CHEERS opened with a discussion by panelists representing a range of industries from computing technology to pharmaceuticals.

CHEERS opened with a discussion by panelists representing a range of industries from computing technology to pharmaceuticals. Speakers included Bill Dolan, Ph.D. 1989, research associate at BASF; Jerry Tai , Ph.D. 2005, engineering group leader at Intel Corporation.; Dave Reichert, B.S./M.S.E. 1984 and Ph.D. 1990, Electronics and Imaging Solutions, DuPont Specialty Products; Arch Creasy, Ph.D. 2018, senior scientist at Pfizer Inc.; and Jim Farmar, senior engineering specialist at Merck & Co. The panelists answered questions and spoke about their career paths, industry sectors, transitioning from academia, the job search and more.

Alan Hunter, a director at AstraZeneca in Gaithersburg, Md., gave the keynote address. An alumnus of Lawrence R. Quarles Professor Giorgio Carta’s bioseparations lab, Hunter spoke on his experience in biopharmaceutical development and purification. He also shared recent research from his group at AstraZeneca on antibody therapeutics, but devoted the first part of his presentation to addressing the non-science skills students need to develop for successful careers.

Hunter spoke of the importance of communicating well — and in all its forms: written, verbal and nonverbal. He noted that industrial research and development teams are diverse and multifunctional. Being able to relate to and build trust with people who have different training and backgrounds is essential, as is the power of persuasion. He said the ability to deliver a compelling presentation is a “differentiator” and a “career game changer.”

Providing a forum to practice those skills was a primary objective of CHEERS.

“Presentation is a really important part of being successful in research,” Dagnall said. “Some students have opportunities to go to conferences, but some don’t. We need to create more opportunities for students to engage with others about what they are working on.”

This group of graduate students has a history of finding ways to share their research. Last summer, the board expanded its annual Grad Student Seminar Series to make room to invite all students to participate. Previously in the annual series, Ph.D. candidates nearing graduation presented their research to peers and faculty over the summer months. As a result of the change in format last year, 11 students and a research technician gave presentations, including several rising third-year students.

“We wanted to make [the seminar series] open for all students to gain experience in presenting so that they can feel more comfortable and have opportunities to develop these important skills ― to talk about your research ― right from the beginning,” said Guthrie, a fourth-year student, at the time.

An added benefit of expanding the summer series is that students hear about what their colleagues are doing in their labs, raising the potential for collaboration, Guthrie said.

CHEERS provides a similar opportunity, but it’s also a way for students to network with prospective employers and for alumni to see the work that is going on in the department. That could also lead to new collaborations between industry and researchers at UVA Chemical Engineering, Dagnall said.

“The biggest thing is promoting the research and giving us a chance to show off what we do here,” Dagnall said.

The symposium was held at the same time as the Department of Chemical Engineering Advisory Board’s annual meeting on Grounds. Members of the Advisory Board attended the symposium’s sessions and participated along with the industry guests as judges of the poster presentations. Following the event, three winning posters were announced.

Erica Hui (Caliari Lab) placed first with “Phototunable hyaluronic acid hydrogels to study hepatic stellate cell mechanobiology.” Coming in second was Alex Chen (Choi Lab) for “Understanding the formation of vertical orientation in two-dimensional perovskites and the effect on optoelectronic properties” and Xueying Zhao’s “Marine Bacteria Migration Towards Hydrocarbons: A Process Improving Biodegradation Efficiency in Oil Spill Cleanup” won third place.

Student explaining research to visitor at poster session

The Chemical Engineering Research Symposium, called CHEERS, gave graduate students the opportunity to practice presenting their research to alumni and visitors who work for companies and in industries where many of the students will be seeking employment when they graduate.