Chemical Engineering Ph.D. Students and Faculty Have a Culture All Their Own

When Bill Epling arrived at the University of Virginia as the new Department of Chemical Engineering chair in 2016, he noticed the graduate students seemed to share a distinct culture.

For one thing, many of the students are roommates and/or neighbors, living in a cluster of houses close to the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Every year, new students move into apartments vacated by somebody who just graduated,” he said. “Or they come to UVA and shortly after move in together. When COVID struck, I was worried my whole department would get taken out within a week. They all live together. They all hang out together.”

Thankfully, the students took COVID-19 safety protocols seriously, so that didn’t happen. But Epling, who likes to joke, wasn’t joking.

Ask a handful of chemical engineering Ph.D. students and they agree: There is a sense of belonging and appreciation for focusing on what is truly important among both students and faculty, which helps them navigate the rigors of graduate-level research and training.

“This environment was here when I got here,” Epling said. “Students who visit see it and they like it, and so they come here and that keeps it going. I’ll do whatever I can to give students the help to keep it going.”

He has his reasons, and he’ll admit they’re partly selfish. Happy researchers are energetic researchers.

“And that’s good for us,” he said. “But I do believe, more often than not, it’s more important to walk into the right lab than the right project. It’s ideal if you walk into both.

“Doing research you’re interested in is going to get you pretty far, but the people you’re surrounded by and the networks you build will help you go further – and keep things in perspective when work gets frustrating.”

Screen shot from the Caliari Lab Twitter page

Graduate and undergraduate students look on in mock horror as their lab’s principal investigator, assistant professor of chemical engineering Steven Caliari, actually touches stuff in the lab. The group suspected the biomaterials research community would see the humor – and judging from the number of retweets and likes, they were right.

Rhea Braun, a Princeton graduate in her third year of her Ph.D. program in professor Roseanne Ford’s lab, agrees. Braun applied to UVA because she was drawn by the practical applications of Ford’s chemotaxis research, particularly cleaning up environmental disasters such as oil spills. Her recruitment weekend on Grounds sealed the deal.

“Legitimately, I just had a great time,” Braun said. “I could tell students were happy, they enjoyed being around each other and the professors. The professors were happy and vibrant, and really engaged in their research.”

Braun was impressed enough to organize the spring virtual visit events for Ph.D. applicants as the Chemical Engineering Graduate Board recruitment chair for the class that arrived in fall 2021. This year she is the board president, a role she embraces in part because she sees the department’s trajectory.

Epling came to UVA Engineering as part of an initiative to expand the department through strategic hires of talented, ambitious faculty, new sources of funding and recruitment of top-notch graduate students eager to produce difference-making research. Since 2016, the department has added 12 full-time early- to mid-career faculty members, contributing to increases of 44% in Ph.D. enrollment, 393% in research awards and 217% in research expenditures over the same period.

Like Epling, Braun believes the department can get bigger and better while preserving the graduate program culture, although having more people will require more effort. COVID has also made it challenging for Braun’s class and this year’s to bond as tightly as their predecessors.

Not every student wants to be involved on the Graduate Board, or hang out with their lab mates. But for those who do want to interact socially or professionally, opportunity is plentiful.

The board schedules regular speakers from industry and academia, organizes a graduate seminar series each summer and hosts the Chemical Engineering Research Symposium, known as CHEERS, in the spring. There’s also a budget for monthly themed happy hours popular with students and faculty.

After last year’s virtual gatherings, happy hours were back in person this fall, and saw the inauguration of the first UVA CHE Olympics in August and the return of the annual bakeoff contest in November. This year’s secret ingredient was lemons. Assessing the baked goods’ lemony qualities like the most serious of TV baking show experts, Epling and his fellow judges, assistant professors Steven Caliari and Chris Highley, kept the commentary coming.

“At one point, I could not taste anything,” Epling said later. “I was laughing too hard.”

  • Judges taste the first entry in the 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff.

    Judges taste the first entry in the 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff during the Graduate Board’s monthly happy hour in November. The competition’s secret ingredient was lemons. Praising the lemon glaze and “candied lemon thing,” assistant professor Chris Highley (left) found the treat “lemony in many ways,” while assistant professor Steven Caliari (right) liked how the lemon really shined through. Professor Bill Epling was speechless. (Use the left and right arrows for more photos from the event.)

  • Representing the UVA chemical engineering fourth-year class, Ph.D. students Israt Duti (from left), Mara Kuenen, Vincent Gray and Colby Whitcomb won the 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff with their entry of Lemon Basil Shortbread Cookies.

    Representing the UVA chemical engineering fourth-year class, Ph.D. students Israt Duti (from left), Mara Kuenen, Vincent Gray and Colby Whitcomb won the 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff with their entry of Lemon Basil Shortbread Cookies.

  • Mark Bannon (wearing the chef’s hat) emceed the 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff. He also entered his Asparagus-Ricotta Tart. It didn’t win the judges favor.

    Mark Bannon emceed the 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff. He also entered his Asparagus-Ricotta Tart. It didn’t win the judges’ favor.

  • Associate professor Geoff Geise’s dog Callie greets students arriving for the monthly Chemical Engineering Graduate Board happy hour. November’s event featured a baking competition judged by members of the faculty.

    Associate professor Geoff Geise’s Labrador Callie greets Ph.D. students Anukriti Shrestha and Anna Sviripa arriving for the monthly Chemical Engineering Graduate Board happy hour. November’s event featured a baking competition judged by members of the faculty. The secret ingredient in the competition was lemons.

  • The 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff winning entries.

    The 2021 CHE Grad Student Bakeoff first- and second-place entries. Ph.D. student Kelly Bukovic’s Earl Grey Tart was second.

Mark and Sean Bannon, the board’s recruitment co-chairs for the incoming class, are among the funsters behind happy hour activities. The brothers, who attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology in their home state, were drawn to the UVA ChemE community they discovered when they visited. They liked the research options, and Charlottesville’s cool small-city vibe and surrounding area were also huge pluses. Sean turned down an offer from another well-respected program at a mid-Atlantic school.

“Not a bad place, but definitely no Blue Ridge Mountains close by,” said Sean, who enjoys hiking and fly-fishing when he’s not busy investigating new materials in associate professor Geoff Geise’s polymer membrane lab.

Mark, a year ahead of his brother, loves working in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s biomaterials lab. He said Letteri, one of the department’s newest faculty members, contributes to a larger research community that feels more driven by collaboration in the search for discovery than competition – another point mentioned by every student interviewed for this story.

The faculty also make coming to work fun and inspiring, said the Bannons, who are both leaning toward careers in academia. Mark recalled holding “lab Olympics” in which students, including a high schooler working in Letteri’s lab over the summer, performed tasks such as filling a beaker with water to a specific volume in one pour or adjusting pH to a target level to see who was the most efficient over three tries.

“The high school student was just an amazing researcher, but quiet, and seeing her come out of her shell during the lab Olympics and knowing UVA is a place that supports that type of thing was an amazing feeling,” Mark Bannon said.

One more thing the Ph.D. students universally agreed on was the department’s emphasis on individual growth.

“Publishing papers is the currency in research, but our department also focuses on mentoring students and outputting people who are professionals and leaders in our fields,” said Worcester Polytechnic Institute alumnus Colby Whitcomb, a Ph.D. student in William Mynn Thornton Professor of Chemical Engineering Bob Davis’ catalysis lab. Whitcomb is on the Graduate Board and Graduate Engineering Student Council.

Students are encouraged to participate in programs such as PhD Plus, a university-wide initiative to prepare Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars for long-term success, and many advisors allow their students to complete industry internships. The department also has offered tailored professional development training and workshops in stress management.

Davis is a nationally known figure in reaction engineering, and his presence put UVA on Naomi Miyake’s short list of schools. The Seattle native and University of Washington graduate knew she wanted to study catalysis at an East Coast school – but her final choice also came down to fitting in with the people she met when she was recruited.

Miyake’s appears to be the most tightknit of the current classes, something Epling had previously observed but was reminded of recently.

“I’ve been to two defenses from Naomi’s cohort in the last few weeks,” Epling said. “Their acknowledgements include the usual advisors and funding sources. But they also include their friends, their classmates, the supporters who helped them along the way. I got to see the beginnings of lifelong friendships as they were being formed. That is a privilege.”

Miyake’s class is known for high levels of involvement in department, school and university organizations, such as the grad student council and UVA Society of Women Engineers, which might be one reason the cohort is so close, she said. Arriving the same year as Epling and working alongside him, Miyake had praise for his leadership.

“Bill has been very good about advocating for things we’ve asked for and responding to our concerns, such as addressing diversity and students’ mental well-being,” she said.

Beyond the department, Miyake, a city girl at heart, has found Charlottesville a pleasant surprise, with a comparatively reasonable cost of living and a lot more to do in and around the city than she’d realized. There was a bit of a cultural adjustment when she moved to Virginia, where strangers are more apt to share how their day is actually going than they are in Seattle, she said.

Obviously, the scenery is different too. Washington’s dramatic mountain peaks take your breath away, while the relative hills of the Blue Ridge evoke peacefulness. And then there are the insects, like stinkbugs.

“There are so many bugs in Virginia,” Miyake said.

“Well, yeah,” Epling said. “But, doesn’t Washington have murder hornets?”

  • Assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s team won gold at the inaugural CHE Olympics, professor Roseanne Ford’s team won silver and professor Bill Epling’s team won bronze.

    Here’s how to do a podium shot without the podium. Assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s team won gold at the inaugural CHE Olympics, professor Roseanne Ford’s team won silver and professor Bill Epling’s team won bronze – which might have meant more if there were more than three teams.

  • Assistant professor Rachel Letteri led the winning team in the inaugural CHE Olympics. Pictured from left are Letteri, Mark Bannon, Vincent Gray, Kelly Bukovic, Mara Kuenen and Ivan Basurto.

    Assistant professor Rachel Letteri led the winning team in the inaugural CHE Olympics. From left are Letteri, Mark Bannon, Vincent Gray, Kelly Bukovic, Mara Kuenen and Ivan Basurto.