Undergrads Roll Up their Lab Coat Sleeves

Meaningful research is fundamental to the UVA Department of Chemical Engineering’s educational mission for undergraduates. As second-, third- and fourth-year chemical engineering majors, students have opportunities to collaborate with professors and graduate student mentors on important research in areas such as catalysis, biotechnology, materials engineering, nanotechnology and more. 

Chemical engineering undergraduates, while integral to the department’s research programs today, are preparing to be the engineering leaders of tomorrow through rigorous science training, hands-on practice and teamwork.

Here are four outstanding examples of undergraduate students doing significant research. Click the left and right arrows to scroll through.

  • Emma Laudermilch portrait


    Emma Laudermilch’s Approach Rewrites Tissue Healing With 3-D Inks

    Hydrogels are water-absorbing, three dimensional materials made with synthetic or natural polymers with attributes useful in biomedical applications such as tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. In assistant professor Rachel A. Letteri’s lab, third-year undergraduate Emma Laudermilch is developing hydrogel-based 3-D printing inks she can modify for different uses, including alternatives to complication-prone tissue transplants for treating muscle-loss injuries.

    Her approach combines polymers with interactive Velcro strip-like peptides — amino acid compounds — to create hydrogel inks that can be tuned by manipulating the strength of the peptide interactions.

    “I got involved in research at UVA because of Professor Letteri’s enthusiasm about how impactful the experience can be. The potential to make people’s lives a little better keeps me going,” Laudermilch said.

  • Peter Sepulveda portrait


    Peter Sepulveda Is Trying to Reduce Pollution Through the Power of Computing

    Working with assistant professor Chris Paolucci, third-year student Peter Sepulveda is simulating chemical reactions using manganese zeolites as a catalyst to reduce diesel engine emissions of nitrogen dioxide, a significant pollutant.

    “My role is to model the molecular structures in these reactions using computational methods and propose the most stable reaction cycle that can be tested by experimentalists,” Sepulveda said. “I was fascinated by the computational side of Dr. Paolucci’s research and how it differentiated itself from the experimental procedures of other labs in chemical engineering.

  • Emily Beyer portrait


    Emily Beyer’s Experiments May Help the World Breathe Easier

    Second-year student Emily Beyer and Ph.D. student Luke Huelsenbeck work in assistant professor Gaurav Giri’s lab, fabricating chemical compounds called metal organic frameworks and testing their efficacy in filtering air. Applied in a solution to a textile, such as cotton, metal organic frameworks’ physical and chemical properties may allow the fabric to capture fine particulate matter (less than 2.5 micrometers), a harmful pollutant.

    Beyer is experimenting to optimize metal organic frameworks and fabric combinations to improve filtration while maintaining airflow. Giri is patenting the technology, initially to make personal protective products, such as face masks, scarves and window curtains, for use where air pollution is a significant human health risk. Now he is investigating the process for use in the fight against COVID-19.

  • Gregg Gardner portrait


    Gregg Gardner Aims to Rebuild Functional Muscle

    Gregg Gardner, a second-year student in assistant professor Steven R. Caliari’s lab, is refining a 3-D scaffold made from collagen to repair extensive muscle injuries and prevent debilitating scarring. His focus is a novel way to “dope” the scaffold with a material that encourages nerve stimulation and maximizes conductivity of electrical signals — an important part of muscle function and healing.

    “Ultimately, we want to manufacture collagen scaffolds so that they are compatible with the body, but also add things to them — like growth factors and electrical conductivity — to enhance their effectiveness in the tissue repair process,” Gardner said.