ChemE Briefs

Welcome to ChemE Briefs, a place to find quick notes and posts from the faculty, students, staff and alumni of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia.

    Mara Kuenen’s Research on Degradable Polymers Wins Top Poster Prize at Conference

    June 18, 2022


    Mara Kuenen (second from left), a Ph.D. student in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s polymer biomaterials lab, with other prize winners at the Tosoh Polymer Conference.


    Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Mara Kuenen won the first-place poster prize at the recent Tosoh Polymer Conference 2022 for her research, “Degradable poly(β-amino ester)s: Unpacking the interplay between solution pH, solubility and hydrolysis to control material lifetime.”

    The poster described Kuenen’s research designing and synthesizing negatively charged degradable polymers that can be used to deliver “cargo” – for example, antimicrobial peptides – for therapeutic purposes.

    Kuenen, who works in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s lab, focuses on designing materials with controlled lifetimes to address challenges such as plastic waste pollution and drug delivery. Her work includes investigating new uses for poly(β-amino ester)s – polymers that carry inherent traits such as pH-responsiveness and degradability – to expand the functional areas in which the materials can be applied.

    Ph.D. Student Beibei Gao Wins Poster Award at InterPore2022

    June 15, 2022

    Beibei Gao, a chemical engineering Ph.D. student in professor Roseanne Ford’s lab, was awarded the MDPI Energies Student Poster Award at InterPore2022, the annual conference of the International Society for Porous Media.

    Two MDPI Energies awards are given each year at the InterPore conference in recognition of outstanding student poster presentations. This year there were 63 nominations for the award, which includes a prize of 500 euros.

    The goal of Gao’s research, “Retention of Chemotactic Bacteria in Dual-permeability Microfluidics with Residual NAPL,” centers on understanding how a population of bacteria moves through certain porous materials, such as soil, in response to chemical stimuli signaling a food source.

    This food-dependent movement, called chemotaxis, can be harnessed for uses such as removing pollutants from the environment. Gao’s research aims to improve the efficiency of bioremediation techniques by better understanding chemotactic behavior.

    NMCF Featured in SEAS Open House

    May 05, 2022

    UVa's Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility (NMCF) featured during SEAS annual public open house.

    UVA MSE Open House 14.jpg


    Saturday, April 23rd, 2022, our laboratory spaces were opened to the public.

    Demonstrations by NMCF scientists and students were given during UVa's School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) Open House, which included engineering school building tours and program visits.

    This year's tours featured NMCF's new FEI Themis High-Resolution Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope (HR-STEM), the Helios Focused Ion Beam and Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM), the X-ray Diffraction Laboratory with both powder and single-crystal diffractometers (XRD) on display, as well the Versaprobe III Imaging X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopic (XPS) Microscope.

    Expert student users and scientists spent time describing each sophisticated instrument and materials characterization methodology, providing real-world examples to participants, as well as demonstrating the type of data acquired and answering questions.


    UVA MSE Open House 15.jpg     UVA MSE Open House 5.jpg


    Professor Carta Earns Distinction of Being Named a Fellow of the International Adsorption Society

    April 27, 2022

    Giorgio Carta, the Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia, has been appointed a fellow of the International Adsorption Society in recognition of his distinguished research and education in separations technologies.

    The international society brings together industry, academic and government researchers from throughout the world working in the field of adsorption – a process of using solids to remove substances from gaseous or liquid solutions. Adsorption is used in myriad settings, from manufacturing to public utilities to national defense, to make products and industrial processes cleaner, safer and more effective.

    Carta is a widely cited leader in preparative and process chromatography education and research. Chromatography encompasses techniques for separating mixtures of chemical or biological substances into individual components. Carta, the author or co-author of several books, is a recognized expert in purification processes of biomolecules at manufacturing scale for the production of biopharmaceuticals.

    Over his nearly 40 years at UVA, he has mentored many undergraduates and dozens of Ph.D. students, a number of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in biopharmaceuticals. Carta has helped establish UVA chemical engineering as a reliable source of talent for the industry.

    UVA Teams Impress at Spring ChemE Sports Competition

    April 22, 2022


    Chemical engineering majors Elli Brna (from left) Jack Kilduff, Ethan Kutner and Brandon Hudson competed in the ChemE Sports spring competition with teammates (not pictured) Avery Baker and Nitin Elavarasu.

    The University of Virginia Department of Chemical Engineering fielded two teams in the recent ChemE Sports spring competition, and both finished with impressive performances.

    The team of fourth-year Brandon Hudson, third-year Ethan Kutner and second-year Avery Baker placed third among a total of 17 teams, while fourth-year Jack Kilduff, first-year Elli Brna and second-year Nitin Elavarasu finished in sixth place.

    Professors Eric Anderson and George Prpich coached the teams.

    ChemE-Sports is a simulation-based competition hosted by PetroSkills twice a year – each coinciding with American Institute of Chemical Engineers events, the organization’s annual meeting in the fall and regional student conferences held in the spring. This spring’s virtual competition occurred during the mid-Atlantic region’s student conference and drew participants from around the world.

    During the competitions, teams work together on a plant operation task, such as separating chemical compounds using a distillation column, all the while reacting to programmed failures in the system, such as pump failures or steam valves shutting off. Teams earn points for producing the most product that meets purity specifications while minimizing the number of alarms and time in alarms.

    “ChemE Sports competitions are great events for chemical engineering majors across all four years to get together and practice weekly for a competition that enhances knowledge in industrial operations and safety in the chemicals industry,” Kilduff said. “The competition was quite a lot of fun this year, and the team is looking forward to next fall!”

    Letteri Biomaterials Lab’s Mara Kuenen Notches Poster Award and Travel Scholarship

    April 11, 2022


    Mara Kuenen, a Ph.D. student in assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s polymer biomaterials lab, designs materials with controlled lifetimes to address a range of challenges in medicine and engineering.


    Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Mara Kuenen’s research has been getting noticed lately. Kuenen, a member of assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s lab, won a best poster award at the American Chemical Society’s ACS Spring 2022 meeting in San Diego. Competing in the society’s Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering division, Kuenen presented her work on degradable poly(amino ester)s.

    Kuenen’s research focuses on designing materials with controlled lifetimes to address challenges such as plastic waste pollution and drug delivery. Her work includes investigating new uses for poly(amino ester)s – polymers that carry inherent traits such as pH-responsiveness and degradability – to expand the functional areas in which the materials can be applied.

    Kuenen also earned a travel scholarship to attend a short course on sustainable polymers held by the Division of Polymer Physics of the American Physical Society.

    The course, Sustainable Polymers: Physics of New Materials, Design for Sustainability and End-of-Life, addressed the effects of polymer production on the environment and presented concepts to promote sustainable practices.

    Ph.D. Student in Epling Catalysis Lab, Silvia Marino, Earns Two Travel Awards for Spring Meetings

    April 06, 2022


    Silvia Marino, a Ph.D. student in Professor Bill Epling’s catalysis lab, is working to improve gasoline-engine aftertreatment systems.


    Silvia Marino, a Ph.D. student in Professor Bill Epling’s environmental catalysis lab, has received two competitive travel awards this spring to attend professional conferences.

    Marino was awarded a CATL-ChemCatBio Graduate Student Travel Award to attend the Spring 2022 ACS National Meeting in March, where she spoke on her research, “Rh catalyst structural changes during CO oxidation.” The award is given by the Catalysis Science and Technology (CATL) Division of the American Chemical Society.

    Marino also will present a poster, “Evaluating the effect of Pt-Rh interactions on activity and stability of Pt-Rh/Al2O3 three way catalysts,” at NAM27, the 27th North American Catalysis Society Meeting, in May. Her travel will be supported by a Kokes Award.

    Both projects investigate catalysts to improve the aftertreatment system of gasoline-engine cars to reduce pollution.

    Masking Requirement Lifted for NMCF

    March 20, 2022

    Masks and COVID vaccinations are now optional at UVa and within the NMCF, including during for-credit laboratory classes.


    If you have had close contact with someone who has recently tested positive for COVID, please wear a mask in the NMCF facilities per UVa policy.


    If you have significant health concerns where universal masking is advised, please reach out to the appropriate NMCF instrument scientist or class instructor.


    Details concerning UVa's COVID policy for staff & visitors can be found here.



    UVA Chemical Engineering Hosts CHEERS 2022, a Research Symposium and Networking Event

    March 14, 2022


    Department of Chemical Engineering chair Bill Epling gave opening remarks at the annual Chemical Engineering Research Symposium, known as CHEERS. Click HERE for more photos

    CHEERS 2022, UVA’s annual Chemical Engineering Research Symposium, took place Friday, March 11, bringing together graduate students, faculty, alumni and industry experts to showcase research in the department and create networking opportunities for students.

    This year’s keynote speaker was Tucker Norton, Cyrel Solutions general manager at Dupont. Norton, a Louis Rader Award recipient and 1997 chemical engineering Ph.D. alumnus, also received his MBA from the Darden School of Business.

    In addition to students’ oral presentations and poster sessions highlighting research ranging from battery technology to tissue engineering, the daylong symposium included an industry panel in which CHE alumni shared experiences, insights and advice for Ph.D. students preparing to enter the workforce.

    Alan Hunter (Ph.D. 2002), a senior director at AstraZeneca, kicked off the panel with a short presentation. He was then joined by Erica Hui (Ph.D. 2021), an investigator in downstream process development at GSK; Tara Tibbs Jones (M.S. 2001, Ph.D. 2003), vice president drug substance manufacturing at Amgen; and Rob Kasprow (M.S. 1997, Ph.D. 2000), an executive director at Merck.

    CHEERS is organized by members of the Chemical Engineering Graduate Board, led by this year’s coordinator Tori Vigil.

    “CHEERS not only showcases the great research coming out of our department, but also the supportive community that we have built,” said Vigil, a Ph.D. student in her second year. “Seeing our awesome alumni is a reminder that at the end of the day, a CHE Ph.D. from UVA not only represents a rigorous education, but also great personal and professional growth.”

    Other Graduate Board members who were instrumental in organizing the symposium were Greg Grewal, the CHEERS 2020 coordinator, and president Rhea Braun, Vigil said, adding, “Our department first-year students were a tremendous help in day-of behind-the-scenes support.”

    CHEERS 2022 was sponsored by GSK.

    Lazzara Lab Wins Presenter Awards at Commonwealth of Virginia Cancer Research Conference

    February 22, 2022
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    Brooke McGirr Brown and Karl Kowalewski, Ph.D. students in associate professor of chemical engineering Matt Lazzara’s lab at the University of Virginia, recently won breakout session presentation awards at the Commonwealth of Virginia Cancer Research Conference.

    Brown earned the breakout session award for presenting, “Signaling regulation of epithelial-mesenchymal transition in the hypoxic tumor microenvironment of pancreas cancer.” Kowalewski won for “Cancer-associated fibroblast signaling regulation of epithelial-mesenchymal transition in pancreas cancer.”

    Cancer of the pancreas is one the most deadly cancers, in large measure because the tumors don’t respond well to standard therapies. Both Brown and Kowalewski focus on the mechanisms that cause the tumor cells to resist therapy, with the goal of identifying what processes to target with cancer-killing drugs to overcome the resistance and improve outcomes. Kowalewski specifically homes in on how fibroblasts, cells that form connective tissue and scarring, contribute to therapy resistance.

    The annual Cancer Research Conference, hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center, invites cancer research trainees, such as graduate students and postdoctoral and clinical fellows, to present their work in oral sessions. A goal of the conference is to promote collaboration and networking among clinicians and researchers interested in basic, translational and clinical cancer research.