New UVA Chemical Engineering Program Aims to Grow Careers and Difference-Makers One Mentor and Mentee at a Time

University of Virginia 2019 chemical engineering alumnus Chris Holland’s professional career is just starting, but as early as high school he internalized a philosophy that’s hard to argue with: Everyone needs mentors.

“Well, maybe Dr. King doesn’t need one now, but he had plenty,” Holland said, referring to Michael King, a professor of practice in chemical engineering. King is a retired Merck and Co. vice president who spent his career bringing new, sometimes life-changing pharmaceutical products to market.

Recognition of the power of the mentor-mentee relationship is behind a new alumni mentoring program the chemical engineering department piloted in spring 2020 and opened to all chemical engineering undergraduates last fall. Holland is spearheading the program with 2020 alumnus Kevin Bahati and Will McDevitt, who graduated in May.

Holland came to know King, the faculty advisor to UVA’s student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering, in class and in Holland’s role as director of the chapter’s Alumni and Corporation Relations Committee. Holland graduated from UVA with a position waiting at Merck’s Elkton plant as a technical operations engineer. King did more than help Holland secure the job; he opened the younger man’s eyes.

“I didn’t know I wanted to go into the biotech pharmaceutical world until my fourth year. If I had not met Dr. King or if I had not taken his class, who knows where I would be working?” Holland said.

Those “ifs” loomed a little larger than Holland would have liked, because while he had access to faculty mentors as an undergraduate, seeking advice from chemical engineering alumni was harder. From Holland’s previous experience in mentorship programs, including being part of a focus group that helped UVA redesign the Virginia Alumni Mentoring website, he knew alumni want to give back to their school and to help students. Getting students to sign up is trickier, but he and King both understood what the two groups needed most was a way to find one another, and a push to make the connection.

UVA chemical engineering alumni Kevin Bahati (left) and Chris Holland

Kevin Bahati (left) and Chris Holland, who graduated from UVA in 2020 and 2019, are leading the Department of Chemical Engineering’s new mentoring program pairing young alumni with students.

The improved mentoring platform seemed to provide the infrastructure. UVA students and alumni can see other users’ profiles, including areas of interest, expertise and how and for what purpose they are willing to be contacted by other members. The site also lets users organize by affiliation. Group administrators can add tabs for group discussions and links to general or topic-specific resources, such as industry job boards and school-level career centers.

With help from Dana Quist, assistant director in UVA Engineering’s Center for Engineering Career Development, Holland and Bahati created a chemical engineering group on the Virginia Mentoring Alumni platform. Bahati, who followed Holland as the Alumni and Corporations Relations Committee director, and Holland ran a pilot program in spring 2020 in which they recruited and paired 17 students to 17 alumni. They asked mentees to meet with their mentors at least twice during the semester and provided topics of conversation, but otherwise left the format up to the participants.

Over the summer, as Bahati also went to work for Merck and McDevitt prepared to succeed him as the committee director, they collected feedback and subsequently tweaked the pairing process to prioritize a student’s career industry preferences. McDevitt took over recruiting from the student side, while Holland and Bahati handled alumni outreach. Participation in the program grew to more than 80 people evenly split between alumni and students. The team individually matched mentee to mentor.

“The most important thing to us was making the students feel comfortable talking to these alumni and enabling them to do so,” McDevitt said.

While the team envisions eventually expanding the alumni group to successive generations — where older alumni are paired with younger alumni — for now, they’re focusing on those up to five years from graduation.

“For students, obviously there’s the professional development side of it,” Holland said. “But I was also in their shoes, three, four years ago. I can say, ‘Hey, I found this really helpful during [Material and Energy Balances],’ or ‘Don’t wait to the last minute to do those weekly problem sets in Professor [Geoffrey] Geise’s chemical thermodynamics class. Go to office hours, they’ll help you,’ etcetera. Things are fresh in your mind, and I also had the same experience, at least for now, as current students.”

Will McDevitt headshot

"The most important thing to us was making the students feel comfortable talking to these alumni and enabling them to do so."

Will McDevitt, B.S. chemical engineering 2021

Chemical engineering chair and professor William Epling backed the mentoring program as a way for interested alumni to engage and invest in the department. But it’s mostly about giving students the tools for self-discovery and success, he said.

“Mentoring and networking are too important nowadays. How do students know what career path to take? Talk to people who are living that career path,” Epling said.

That’s why future iterations will allow students to change mentors after a semester if they want, Bahati said. A lot can change between students’ second and fourth years.

“The primary intent is to enhance the professional development of students by helping them foster relationships with alumni who share their career interests. Access to more mentors with career profiles of interest can only help, as students will be learning from a diverse group of alumni,” Bahati said.

Shining Wang, a rising fourth-year with a second major in statistics and a business minor, mentored with 2018 alumna Saehee Jung, a tolling production manager at Syngenta, during the spring 2020 pilot. Wang signed up again in the fall, and was matched with Cari Bergner, a 2013 graduate who began her career at ExxonMobil and now is a consultant at IHS Markit.

“I can’t speak enough about how great and helpful this program is,” Wang said. “I learned quite a bit from my mentors’ experience at UVA, and got to explore more research opportunities in different disciplines. The story of their transitions from college to work and their continued growth at work really inspired me in the sense that there’s a lot of unconventional career paths a chemical engineer can take.”

Wang’s mentors also encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone and be less shy about expressing her opinions, Wang said, noting she is quiet by nature. “That advice really helped me improve my performance in interviews and in general,” Wang said.

2021 alumnus Geoffrey Burns signed up for a mentor last fall looking for opinions on different areas within the pharmaceutical industry, such as process development versus research and development, and on pursuing grad school. He was matched with Simpson Gregoire, who earned his Ph.D. from UVA in 2014 and works at Bristol Myers Squibb.

“At first, I was a little nervous speaking with him, but after the first couple meetings, I felt very comfortable asking all sorts of questions,” Burns said. “These ranged from his day-to-day tasks as an engineering scientist to what advice he had regarding getting a job interview and handling technical interviews. I definitely built a good relationship with Dr. Gregoire.”

Michael King, professor of practice in chemical engineering

"You ‘pay it forward’ not because you get something out of it, but because it’s the right thing to do and you have a positive influence on the profession."

Michael King, professor of practice in chemical engineering

Burns was offered a job with a gene therapy start-up, and immediately wrote Gregoire with the good news. “He spoke a lot about areas in cell and gene therapy, which helped lead me to this position,” Burns said. “Dr. Gregoire had a huge impact on my search, and I wanted to thank him for all of his help.”

Someday, Burns hopes to be on the other end of the relationship. “I would love to be a mentor for undergrads and help them like my mentor helped me,” he said.

That would be gratifying to Holland, King and Epling, who see providing a conduit for alumni to stay involved in the department as an important goal of the program.

The question remains, does King still need mentors?

Not so much, he said, but he does rely on his network, especially for his work with the Gates Foundation’s COVID-19 vaccine response. Never underestimate networks, he said, or the “autocatalytic” effect of helping those who follow you.

“I was at Merck for 32 years and by the time I retired, the processes I developed were obsolete,” King said. “But all the people I mentored and built relationships with had a much greater impact on the company than anything I did.”

He recalled a funeral last year, where generations of scientists and leaders from across the pharma industry gathered to mourn Edward Paul, a 1952 UVA graduate and industrial chemical engineering icon. They were the branches of Paul’s mentoring tree, King said, his mentees and the mentees of their mentees.

“You ‘pay it forward’ not because you get something out of it, but because it’s the right thing to do and you have a positive influence on the profession,” King said.