Illinois I-mark

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Susan Stevens

Class of 2011
Tell us where you live and your current job.
I currently work for Cargill in Hammond, IN at a facility that creates different types of modified food starch and corn syrup. I live in the South Loop of Chicago. What I enjoy about my career with Cargill is the ability to work in several roles. I’ve been a Project Engineer, Reliability Engineer, Department Supervisor and I’m currently on a short term assignment to finalize/test out all of the new programming for an expansion project. I’ve been fortunate to have all of these experiences as they have helped me see many sides of Cargill’s global business.

Could you share with us a recent work accomplishment or project you’re currently working on?
I’m currently on a short term assignment to validate and verify all of the programming for our new PSM area. I’m working with external contractors, a Cargill project team, as well as the department that the project will impact. I have complete responsibility for the end product, the safety system involved, operator training, and final start-up and commissioning.

How did your education in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois help prepare you for your career?
The education I received taught me how to keep fighting to find a solution to a problem as well as that my solution might not be the solution that another came up with. It is critical that all involved parties bring their ideas and solutions together for the best possible outcome.

Favorite memory of your time at Illinois
One of my favorite memories is my study group of six chemical engineers that bonded together and the countless late nights we spent for senior engineering design projects. I remember meeting them at 3 a.m. for a snack break. The friendship that I have with them has stood the test of time and we are all still close today (and I married one of them!)

If you could give one piece of advice to ChBE freshmen, what would it be?
Try to make the connection between what the textbook is telling you and what it applies to out in industry or research. If you are learning about heat transfer, get on YouTube and learn about heat exchangers. Engineering is about so much more than just learning the math!

Sonam Patel

Class of 2011

Tell us where you live and your current job.

Cincinnati, OH. I work as a Senior Product Design Engineer for Procter & Gamble in their Feminine Care business. I enjoy being able to talk with consumer and use their insights to design a product for the market. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment seeing something you worked on at the store shelves and means even more to make a differences in the lives of my consumer.

Could you share with us a recent work accomplishment or project you’re currently working on?
I recently helped to launch a project from the concept phase to full scale manufacturing. My next goal is to get my name on a U.S. patent with some of the product design work I do.

How did your education in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois help prepare you for your career?
My major helped me get the discipline needed to approach a problem with many solutions and figure out how to get the resources I need to accomplish my projects. Through labs and senior design, I learned to work in a team to take advantage of each other’s strengths and accomplish even more doing so.

Favorite memory of your time at Illinois
Working at the front desk at ISR and having such a closely knit team. You always ran into someone or something interesting at the desk and I loved being able to meet so many people.

If you could give one piece of advice to ChBE freshmen, what would it be?
Try and get as many internships before graduating as you can and know that many companies hire freshman. ChBE is a versatile engineering degree and can get you a job in many fields. That’s why I chose chemical engineering. The stuff you learn in class is only one part of what a chemical engineer can do. The possibilities after graduation are endless and your background is what gets you the job, but it doesn’t limit you. That’s why it’s important to do internships to learn what you may be interested in after graduation.

Dawn (Symonds) Zink

As a product support representative living in Paris, France, Dawn Zink works with Caterpillar dealers to improve their customer service interactions.

Zink, BS ’05, has been with Caterpillar for eight years and has worked in similar positions across the globe. Prior to being based in Paris, she worked with Caterpillar dealers on the West Coast in the United States.

Zink’s relationship with Caterpillar began when she was an intern there and after graduation she took a full-time position with the company. She worked as a chemical engineer, creating formulas for rubber compounds in Caterpillar’s hydraulic hoses.

“However, I quickly realized that I wasn’t interested in doing the same thing for my entire career and with Caterpillar, it is possible to change careers,” she said.

In 2007, she moved to their technical marketing program. Zink now helps dealers enhance their marketing capabilities and how to improve customer service.

“I love my job,” she said. “Every day is different, and I work with all types of different people in different countries. I’m glad I was able to switch careers into the “marketing side” of the business.”

Looking back on her time at Illinois, she says the critical learning skills and the confidence gained by completing the more difficult chemical engineering course work not only helped her land her first job at Caterpillar, “but gave me the confidence that I can clearly perform well and understand most other careers available,” she said.

As an undergraduate, Zink worked with Dr. Paul Kenis in his lab where she learned a lot about chemistry and engineering.

“But the main thing I remember was that he had moved all over the world with his education and skill set; I wanted to do the same,” she said.

She lives in Paris with her husband, Brian Zink, and their 3-year-old son, Eli. The family enjoys traveling and Zink enjoys running—she’s completed the Paris Half Marathon. “These races are good training for chasing Eli around,” she says. “But my number one hobby is to become fluent in French.”

Chris Arges

Moving to Illinois at the age of 14 set the course for Chris Arges, BS ’05, to attend the University of Illinois. Growing up in Northwest Indiana, he had a strong bias toward Indiana public universities. But once he came to Illinois, “I came to discover how great the University of Illinois was.”

As an undergraduate, he participated in research and was a co-author on two peer-reviewed publications. “Those two papers are testaments that I helped contribute new knowledge to the field during my tenure at Illinois,” he said.

He worked with Professor Chris Bardeen in Physical Chemistry while being co-advised by Professor Richard Alkire in Chemical Engineering. While working in those labs he met success and failure, something he now realizes is part of research. “Persevering through those early failures in the lab gave me the confidence later on in my career to work around problems or to embark on new projects when existing ones are not working,” he said.

He says the top-notch education he received at Illinois played a prominent role in securing a job offer before graduation. “Although I had a nice paying job in industry at a young age, I yearned to return to academia,” he recalls. “I wanted to continue working in research and publishing papers.”

Arges is now an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University where he pursues research in sustainable, economical and efficient uses of energy and water resources. He said the energy-water nexus represents a symbiotic relationship because it takes significant amounts of water to generate electricity and it requires a great deal of electricity to purify water. Arges’ research group is working to create new electrochemical devices and materials that could help to store or convert energy from renewable and green sources, such as solar and wind. And they’re working on how to generate carbon neutral chemical fuels and purify water from sea water and brackish water streams.

He chose the academic career path because “I genuinely want to help young people in their professional development and I like to talk about my research to the general public. Without the encouragement and support of others, there is no way I would be doing what I love.”

Arges said his days at Illinois not only included pursuing rigorous undergraduate research and academic courses, but developing valuable friendships. “We often challenged and learned from each other while working on homework or studying for exams,” he said. “We still remain friends today. We often like to reminisce about the hard work and the fun times together.”

He and his wife, Hiral Arges, BS ’08, welcomed their baby daughter, Mira, in the past year and they moved from Chicago to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his family, going for runs and bike rides and traveling domestically and abroad.

Sravan Pappu

Sravan Pappu, BS ’05, joined the oil and energy industry after graduation.

“It is a field where I needed my textbooks and used my training every day,” he said. “I felt like I worked hard to learn these concepts, and I wanted to use them in a meaningful way.”

Pappu is the Industry Manager at Johnson Matthey for their PURASPEC product. He helps to prepare and implement a strategic plan for the products and services for the refinery purification markets. Before that he worked for BP’s Whiting Refinery as a process engineer.

“I love it (Johnson Matthey), as I am exposed to areas I have grown to enjoy and I set the direction that our business goes in,” he said. “I travel the world to talk to refiners about their purification problems and our solutions, and bring expertise in the various contaminant-removal processes. It is rewarding to be an expert, and I have experienced environments and cultures that I wouldn’t have expected to.”

As an undergraduate at Illinois, Pappu said Dr. Martin Gruebele in Physical Chemistry invited him to participate in research. “He took a chance and gave me an opportunity in his lab, which ultimately had an impact on my undergrad and professional path,” he said. “People in industry recognize Illinois as an excellent institution and my current company has a great cache of Illinois alum.”

When not working, Pappu says he enjoys traveling with his wife and playing soccer in Chicago. “My job has allowed me to experience places and cultures I haven’t seen before, something that really affects my world view,” he said.

Ajay Virkar

Ajay Virkar says Illinois gave him an excellent foundation in the physical sciences and engineering.

That educational path led Virkar to complete his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at Stanford University. While there, he and some colleagues began a side project to develop new materials for solar cells. After winning the NASA technology prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition and first prize at the MIT Clean Energy competition, he co-founded C3Nano, where Virkar is the Chief Technology Officer. The company is headquartered in Silicon Valley with manufacturing and research and development in South Korea.

The company focuses on transparent electrode materials and also is targeting applications ranging from consumer electronics (like touch screens in smart phones and tablets) to clean energy (smart windows, photovoltaics, and OLED lighting).
At Illinois he worked in Professor Paul Kenis’ research lab where he discovered an enjoyment for research.

“It certainly was the positive experience in Professor Kenis’ group that led me to pursue graduate school,” he said. “Understanding my specific interest in materials, he also helped direct me to Stanford for my Ph.D. studies.”

The Thermodynamics class remains the most useful class he took to understand basic physical phenomenon including reactions and states of matter. Other faculty who played a role in his time at Illinois included Nancy Makri and Vitaly Voloshin and the late Linn Belford. Belford’s class on quantum mechanics led Virkar to become more interested in quantum physics.

“I have now made pilgrimages as far as Europe to visit Niels Bohr’s famed institute in Copenhagen and Albert Einstein’s apartment during his miracle year in Bern,” Virkar said.

Laura Flessner

Participating in a high school Model United Nations group about water pollution helped Laura Flessner, BS ’05, decide on a career in chemical engineering.

“It opened my eyes to the unfortunate world water situation where millions of people don’t have access to clean water,” she said. “That experience moved me to want to help others. I thought I might be able to tackle the clean water problem with a chemical engineering degree.”

After deciding to attend the University of Illinois, she went to a career fair and landed an internship with Procter & Gamble. At that time the company owned PUR, a water purification brand, which made the internship a natural fit for Flessner.

She worked at P&G in process engineering, packaging engineering and products research. This is where she found her passion.

“I fell in love with products research because it married two of my interests, technology and people,” she said. “By understanding what people want, I am able to influence the product design. I became a translator, a bridge between real people and scientists/engineers since technical people can have a language of their own.”

She later found a position at Pfizer Consumer Healthcare in New Jersey and was hired as one of its first product researchers. During her five years with the company she has worked on many global brands including Centrum, Emergen-C, ChapStick and Children’s Advil. She works on projects ranging from exploratory to testing early ideas to finalizing products and validating formulations.

“I’m no longer working on water, but love the fact that I’m still in the health care space helping people stay healthy and make their day just a little bit better,” Flessner said.

She is married to fellow classmate Ryan Flessner, ’05 BS. The couple met at the U of I and married after Ryan completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. He now works at Merck in the small molecule process development and commercialization group.

They have three children: Jack, age 5; Lily, age 3 and Luke, age 1. “Before kids I loved rock climbing at Red River Gorge in Kentucky and cycling,” she said. “Now I’m mom and all that comes with that title.”

She says Professor Paul Kenis and Professor Marina Miletic had the most influence during her time at Illinois.

“Dr. Miletic was my first female engineering teacher,” she said. “She pushed and challenged me beyond my comfort level allowing me to grow further. She showed me that it was possible for a female to be a leader in the technical world.”

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