Alumni in Academia
The McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering is well established in preparing students for careers in industry, but many of our students also go on to pursue roles in research, teaching and administration. Texas ChE graduates have taught and conducted research at nearly 90 universities around the world, including some of the top engineering programs in the country: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of California Berkeley, the University of California Santa Barbara, and of course, The University of Texas at Austin.
Five of our alumni, all at varying points and focuses in their careers, share their experiences in academia and how Texas ChE got them to where they are today.
New to the Field
Eric Young (Ph.D. ‘13) is just at the beginning of his career in academia. While at UT Austin, Young researched protein engineering of sugar transporters as a tool for metabolic engineering. Now, Young is preparing for an assistant professorship researching synthetic biology, yeast metabolic engineering and protein engineering at the Department of Chemical Engineering in Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“I have always found joy in helping people learn and I envisioned a professorship as the way to do that every day,” Young said. “I look forward to supporting graduate students as they create new knowledge and undergraduates as they learn to think like engineers.”
Young’s experience as a graduate student at UT Austin held an integral role in encouraging him to pursue academia. He had the opportunity to engage and work with many undergraduate and graduate students as a teaching assistant and also largely credits the direction of Professor Hal Alper in guiding his research.
“The exceptional diligence and excitement that all of these students showed only increased my motivation to pursue an academic career,” Young said. “Furthermore, Dr. Alper taught me how to do careful, competent and groundbreaking science.”
With his career in front of him, Young has goals of directing his own research program in an area of significance to him – learning how to design biology. However, he views the opportunity to teach as one of the main benefits of an academic career and wants “to teach and train engineers to be contributors to the economy of the future.”
For current students wishing to pursue a similar path, Young encourages them “to be diligent in their graduate research and to be vigilant about seeking fellowships and grants.”
“Find out everything you can about what it is to be a professor,” Young said. “And also set aside time to make friends and enjoy Central Texas. Academic pursuits can be filled with a great deal of stress, so having companions to share life with and exploring the surrounding nature and culture refreshed and renewed me for the next problem that needed solving.”
Moving Up the Ranks
Tobias Hanrath (M.S. ’02, Ph.D. ’04) has steadily advanced through his academic career since earning his master’s and doctoral degrees at UT Austin. But prior to his time with the department, Hanrath was unsure of pursuing a career in industry or academia. It was the guidance he received from the Korgel Lab group that helped him to realize the possibilities that a career in academia has to offer.
“I didn’t really envision myself in an academic position, but I loved the excitement of new discoveries in chemical engineering research and wanted to keep doing that,” Hanrath said. “I had a rough sense of the type of research I was interested in and Dr. Korgel’s vision of nanostructured materials was very inspiring in that sense.”
After earning his degrees at UT Austin, Hanrath completed postdoctoral research at MIT and the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Now, Hanrath is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell University.
Hanrath’s research uses an interdisciplinary approach to encompass nanomaterial synthesis, surface chemistry, optical and electronic characterization, computation and prototype device fabrication. His work is inspired by the potential application of semiconductor nanocrystals in solar energy conversion and energy storage devices. And while a large focus of his career lies on his research, Hanrath is continually looking to combine lab work with classroom education.
“Our educational objectives are designed to integrate results from the research frontier and education of students and capture the students’ enthusiasm and engagement in impending energy issues, encouraging their future contributions as the next generation of scientist and engineers,” Hanrath said.
“My experience at Texas ChE was absolutely amazing and my time in Brian Korgel’s lab prepared me very well for the academic career that has followed.”
Focusing on Research
As an undergraduate student on the Forty Acres, alumna and current chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara, Rachel Segalman (B.S. ‘98), quickly found a passion for research. Segalman completed a summer NSF-Research Experience for Undergraduates program in Dr. John Ekerdt’s lab and then went on to continue undergraduate research for Dr. Peter Green’s lab.
This early exposure to research in an academic setting satisfied her want to solve open-ended and deep problems.
“I like the fact that my work will hopefully have an impact over the long term, but that we have the freedom to gain fundamental understanding along the way,” Segalman said. “My undergraduate research experience helped cement this passion.”
Segalman credits Texas ChE for helping her to narrow down her research interests. When she was a student, she excelled in the polymer science elective class sequence, which applied the foundational knowledge she learned in thermodynamics, transport phenomena, physical chemistry and organic chemistry classes.
“All of the chemical engineering courses at UT Austin were taught with an expectation that we would learn the basics from the lecture and then dig deeper on our own or in groups,” Segalman said. “From this, I learned the joy of ‘figuring it out’, which is the core of research success, in my opinion.”
After leaving Texas to pursue a graduate degree and her own career at UC Santa Barbara, Segalman realized that addressing questions of how thermodynamics, chain dynamics and kinetics shape the way plastic behaves is much easier if one can design the polymer molecules most suited to providing answers. Now, Segalman’s research is focused on how functionality such as semi-conductivity, ionic conduction, and biological character affect the way polymers self-assemble.
“Ideally, academic engineering research is about contributing important, impactful research that benefits the greater good while also being able to pursue intellectual curiosity and ‘fall down the rabbit hold’ of a hard problem,” Segalman said.
Solving that problem is “extremely satisfying” to Segalman and watching Drs. Ekerdt and Green, as well as the many other Texas ChE faculty she interacted with, celebrates the insights gained by their groups and set her expectations for her future career.
From Industry to Academia
William “Bill” Koros (B.S. ’69, M.S. ’75, Ph.D. ’77) worked in industry for four years after finishing his bachelors degree in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering. Koros, then working for Dupont, felt like he had more to learn about polymers and decided to return to UT Austin for his masters and doctoral degrees with the intent of returning to his previous job after completion. But when he received his Ph.D., Koros realized how much he enjoyed the tutoring experience he had as a graduate student and decided to try the academic path.
“I enjoyed seeing students understand things and become confident that they could figure things out and not need someone to help them after they learned how to learn,” Koros said.
Koros was a member of the research groups of Texas ChE legends Bob Gunn, Gene Wissler and Don Paul throughout his undergraduate and graduate student career. All with different detailed natures and high standards, they pushed Koros to resolve challenging problems and inspired the way he approaches teaching today.
“The professors I worked with were rigorously honest and tough, but nice when you go to know them,” Koros said. “This seemed to be a good way to operate, so I personalized it with my own twist.”
Koros began his career as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University where he was first introduced to membrane science. Shortly after, he returned to UT Austin, first as a research scientist for the Separations Research Program and then as a chemical engineering faculty member. Koros made his way up the ranks and was eventually named chair of the department and after finishing his term, was happy to return to a professorial position.
Now, Koros is a professor at the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, working to grow their research enterprise and continuing his focus on undergraduate education.
Similar to Koros, Michael Pishko (Ph.D. ‘92) began his career in industry before pursuing academia. Pishko was a member of Dr. Adam Heller’s research group and immediately went to work for Heller’s company, TheraSense, after graduating from UT Austin. Desiring to return to research and academia, Pishko attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a post doc and soon after accepted his first position as a faculty member.
It wasn’t long before Pishko realized his passion for not only influencing the education of students, but also guiding faculty to help them succeed, leading Pishko to a role in administration.
Pishko served as the chairman of Texas A&M University’s Department of Chemical Engineering from 2007 to 2011 and led the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing at Texas A&M from 2009 to 2015. Pishko is now the Dean of Engineering at the University of Wyoming.
“Dr. Heller once told me there are only two reasons to do research – to find new truth and to help people, and this has pertained to a large part of my career in academia,” Pishko said. “Most of my enjoyment from my career comes from helping people, helping faculty to succeed in their career advancement and students to succeed in their academic careers.”
And while his career has taken him to universities across the country, the lessons Pishko learned while at UT Austin resonate with each role he holds.
“The University of Texas, the Cockrell School of Engineering and particularly the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering are outstanding organizations that are very well run,” Pishko said. “They are the model of collegiality and are inspirations to strive for.”Tags: academia, Adam Heller, administration, Alumni, Alumni in Academia, Bob Gunn, Don Paul, Dr. Hal Alper, Eric Young, Gene Wissler, Georgia Institute of Technology, Michael Pishko, Rachel Segalman, research, teaching, University of California Santa Barbara, University of Wyoming, Worcester Polytechnic Institute