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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Around the globe, alumni from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering have risen to the many challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are working on the frontlines in hospitals and medical clinics, research labs, manufacturing, and beyond. Below you will find some stories from your fellow alumni. We also invite you to share your story with us.

Dr. Ashley Yeager (PhD ’16 and MD ‘19) shares her perspective as resident in radiology at a Michigan hospital.

Dr. Ed Chien (BS ’84, MD ‘88) discusses his experience as head of the OB/GYN department at the Cleveland Clinic.

Professor Ashlee Ford Versypt (PhD ’12) is part of a multi-institutional research collaboration developing an open-source, multi-scale tissue simulator for viral infection by SARS-CoV-2 and its effects in human tissues.

Congratulations to University of Illinois juniors William Lyon and Sriyankari Chitti, who were awarded Barry M. Goldwater scholarships for their potential to contribute to the advancement of research in the natural sciences, mathematics or engineering.

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Goldwater, who served 30 years in the U.S. Senate. The program encourages the continued development of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to sophomores and juniors from the U.S. who intend to pursue doctorates. The scholarship provides recipients $7,500 for tuition, fees, books or room and board.

This year’s 396 scholars were selected from among the 1,343 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. “Each school can only nominate four students for this highly esteemed award, so we are proud that half of our nominees earned national recognition for their work,” said David Schug, the director of the National and International Scholarships Program at Illinois. “With the high caliber of our STEM students, just being nominated from Illinois is a big deal.”

Lyon, of Lake Forest, Illinois, and a graduate of Northridge Preparatory School, is studying chemical and biomolecular engineering with interests in the field of organometallic chemistry. He plans to earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry to contribute to research that will streamline the drug-discovery process.

At Illinois, Lyon earned the Donald Othmer Sophomore Academic Excellence Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as the top sophomore (among 150) in his department. He has earned authorship on a published manuscript for his research contributions in the lab of chemical engineering professor Huimin Zhao and has spent the past year researching organic synthesis and transition metal catalysis to develop novel cross-coupling reactions via C-H activation with Lycan Professor of Chemistry M. Christina White.

Lyon also is a member of the James Scholar Honors program at Illinois.

from left: Sriyankari Chitti and William Lyon, University of Illinois students who received Barry Goldwater Scholarships in 2020.

Chitti, of Marlboro, New Jersey, began conducting research at Rutgers University while attending the Medical Sciences Magnet Program at Freehold High School. As a freshman in the Division of General Studies at Illinois, she began working with chemistry professor Martin Burke on developing an iterative method for synthesizing three dimensionally enriched small molecules and has continued researching in this lab. This work inspired her to major in chemistry.

A first-generation American, Chitti has successfully written grants to fund her research, been invited to present her work nationally and received multiple awards for her various poster presentations, including a national outstanding poster award. She is also a recipient of the American Chemical Society Division of Organic Chemistry SURF, a national summer fellowship awarded to undergraduates pursuing organic chemistry research at their home institution.

Chitti has completed four graduate chemistry courses since her sophomore year of college. She also mentors fellow undergraduates in her lab and across campus. As an aspiring future professor, Chitti hopes to develop new methodologies to synthesize drug molecules more efficiently, contributing to the fields of organic chemistry and medicine.

Congratulations to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering PhD students who have been selected to receive fellowships from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. They include Paola Baldaguez Medina, Vasiliki “Aliki” Kolliopoulos, and Chris Torres.

The NSF program recognizes and supports individuals early in their graduate training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. The aim is to help ensure the vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce in the U.S. The program provides three years of support for students who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM or STEM education.

ChBE PhD students who were selected for 2020 National Science Founation Graduate Research Program
NSF fellowship recipients (from left) Paola Baldaguez Medina, Vasiliki “Aliki” Kolliopoulos, and Chris Torres

Baldaguez Medina completed her undergraduate education at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez in 2019. While there, she conducted research in separation processes with Professor Hernández-Maldonado and spectroscopy with Professor Hernández-Rivera. She also had internships at the University of Minnesota through the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program working on block-copolymers, and at the University of Florida with Professor Rinaldi on rheology studies.

A member of Assistant Professor Xiao Su’s research group at the University of Illinois, her work focuses on developing water remediation techniques via electrochemical mediated systems for the removal of anthropogenic organic contaminants of concern. She uses redox-polymers electrodes for pollutant binding through electrosorption. Developing an electrochemical separation method could impact society in numerous ways by providing energy effective and modular technologies for water purification, Baldaguez Medina said.

Kolliopoulos is a member of Professor Brendan Harley’s lab, which has been developing advances in tissue engineering. Craniofacial bone defects are common in the context of congenital, traumatic, and post-oncologic conditions. Such bone defects are often large in size and heal poorly, motivating regenerative medicine efforts. A particular barrier to regenerative healing is the significant immune and inflammatory response post injury which can inhibit cell recruitment, vascular remodeling, and new tissue biosynthesis. The Harley lab is developing a class of mineralized collagen biomaterials capable of meeting a wide range of design requirements for successful deployment into CMF bone defects, notably the ability to conformally fit complex defect geometries and support stem cell osteogenesis.

Kolliopoulos said she aims to understand the effect of scaffold biophysical properties (microstructure, stiffness, alignment, mineral morphology) on the recruitment and subsequent activation status of macrophages. Her ultimate goal is to demonstrate biomaterials capable of modulating the kinetics of the macrophage response post injury as a means to accelerate implant integration and subsequent bone regeneration. She completed her undergraduate studies at The Ohio State University. In 2018, while working in the Carlos Castro Lab, she received an honorable mention for the NSF GRFP for her work on DNA Origami.

Torres is a member of Associate Professor David Flaherty’s research group. He studies the catalytic role of solid-liquid interfaces and extended solvent networks for liquid-phase oxidation reactions. His research goal is to create design rules for catalysts which reduce the environmental impact of chemical industries. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of New Mexico.

Illinois alumnus Walt Robb, PhD ’51, a retired executive with GE who led the company’s medical technology business, passed away of COVID-19 on March 23, 2020, in Schenectady, NY. He was 92 years old.

At the U of I, Robb studied under Professor Harry Drickamer and earned his Ph.D. in three years, in 1951. He joined GE after graduating from Illinois and had a long career with the company. As the CT scanning revolution got underway and MRI technology took off, Robb oversaw GE’s struggling medical imaging business, expanding it from a break-even, $100 million business to a highly profitable and growing enterprise. He recruited fellow Illinois ChemE alumnus the late Jack Welch and the two would work together for decades. In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented Robb with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his foresight and leadership in the MRI and CT imaging industry.

Illinois alumnus Walt Robb at a book signing in Roger Adams Laboratory in Urbana.
Walt Robb, PhD ’51, signs copies of his book for students in Roger Adams Lab in 2015.

Robb’s last visit to the Illinois campus was in 2015, when he met with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, and toured labs. The department hosted a book signing and reception for Robb, who wrote about his life and career in the book, “Taking Risks: Getting Ahead in Business and Life.” During that visit, Robb spoke about how Drickamer constantly challenged him and other students. He recalled working 72 hours a week on his thesis and doing whatever it took to gather the data, including sleeping on a cot in the lab.

Robb retired from GE in 1993 and established Vantage Management. He served on the boards of several companies and also owned two professional sports teams in New York. Robb and his wife, Anne, were great supporters of higher education institutions, including the University of Illinois and Penn State, his undergraduate alma mater. He also established a camp in New York for children with life-threatening illnesses.

Robb is a recipient of the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award and the President’s Medallion. He also is a recipient of a 2019 Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award.

Post-Star article

Wall Street Journal obituary

Daily Gazette article

Congratulations to Yu-Heng Deng, PhD student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who was selected for a TechnipFMC Fellowship for 2020-2021.

PhD students Yu-Heng Deng
Yu-Heng Deng

Deng is a member of Robert W. Schaefer Professor Hyunjoon Kong’s research group and focuses on designing self-propelling particles for biofilm removal applications. These self-propelling particles can penetrate biofilm matrix and enhance diffusion of antibiotic molecules to kill bacteria. The lab plans to use such particles to eliminate biofilms which accumulate in oil pipelines.

Deng joined the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as a PhD student in Fall 2017 after earning bachelor and master degrees from National Taiwan University. 

The TechnipFMC fund was originally created by Bert A. Gayman, a University of Illinois mechanical engineering graduate, who gifted shares of Chicago-based Link-Belt Company, later acquired by FMC Corporation. FMC merged with Technip to create TechnipFMC, a global leader in subsea, onshore/offshore and surface projects. The fund supports scholarships, fellowships and research.

The University of Illinois has been closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19. For the most up-to-date information, please consult the campus website, https://covid19.illinois.edu/. The site provides the latest communications, such as information about classes and exams, and a list of resources.

In order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the University of Illinois has enacted several measures, including cancelling or postponing large gatherings. With that in mind, the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has suspended its public seminars and lectures until further notice. The Spring 2020 Undergraduate Award Ceremony has been cancelled.

Unfortunately, commencement and convocation ceremonies for May 2020 will not take place as scheduled due to the pandemic. Diplomas will be mailed, and campus is exploring possible alternatives such as rescheduling and/or hosting virtual events to honor the Class of 2020.

Campus tours and Admitted Student Days have also been suspended. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions is currently preparing online alternatives. In the meantime, the office has produced several excellent virtual tours. If you have specific questions about the program, please reach out to advisors from the School of Chemical Sciences who can answer questions about our program: scs-advising@illinois.edu

Congratulations to Professors Bill Hammack and Baron Peters, both recently invested as William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professors in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Professor Peters at his investiture in December 2019.

Baron Peters joined the Illinois faculty in January 2019. His research includes developing fundamental new methods in rare events modeling to understand catalytic and chemical reaction pathways. He studies reactions between charged species in solution, which is an open and fertile area of research with key applications to energy and the food/water nexus. He specifically aims to understand whether a single universal solvent reaction coordinate (e.g., a unifying theme) can be applied to reactions involving charge transfer with atoms in fixed positions, atom migration with fixed charges, and coupled charge transfer and atom migration. In a second area, he studies nucleation and growth using simulations that accurately capture multiple species including solutes, solvents, surfactants, and nucleants.

Professor Peters and his research group.

Professor Peters graduated from the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 1999, with a BS in Mathematics and Chemical Engineering. In 2004, he earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Bill Hammack

For decades, the EngineerGuy, a.k.a. Professor William S. Hammack, has been enlightening people with his videos, radio commentaries, books, and courses. He is a pioneer of new and novel approaches to engineering outreach. He received his BS in Chemical Engineering from Michigan Technological University in 1984 and his MS and PhD from the University of Illinois in 1986 and 1988, studying intramolecular electron transfer under the late Professor Harry Drickamer. Prof. Hammack taught at Carnegie Mellon for a decade before returning to Illinois and joining the chemical engineering faculty in 1998.

From 1999 to 2006, Hammack created a groundbreaking series of over 200 pieces for public radio that described what engineers do, why they do it, and how. He also created and is host of the popular YouTube channel “engineerguyvideo.” His YouTube videos and pieces for public radio have been seen or heard millions of times around the world.

SCS Director Jonathan Sweedler, College of LAS Dean Feng Sheng Hu, Lycan Professor Bill Hammack, ChBE Department Head Paul Kenis, Vice Provost Paul Ellinger

Researchers in the Schroeder and Moore groups at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have published a new study that illustrates how changes in the polymer sequence affect charge transport properties. This work required the ability to build and study chain molecules with high levels of precision.

The paper, “Charge Transport in Sequence-Defined Conjugated Oligomers,” was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

From left, Hao Yu, graduate student in chemical and biomolecular engineering; Jeff Moore, professor of chemistry; Charles Schroeder, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; and Songsong Li, graduate student in materials science and engineering.

Chain molecules or polymers are ubiquitous in modern society, with organic electronic materials increasingly used in solar cells, flat panel displays, and sensors. However, conventional materials are generally made by statistical polymerization, where the order of the subunits or monomers — the monomer sequence — is random.

“Traditional polymerization methods do not give us a perfect level of control of sequence,” said Charles Schroeder, the associate head and Ray and Beverly Mentzer Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a full-time faculty member at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “As a result, it has been challenging to ask how the monomer sequence affects its properties.”

The researchers developed a method called iterative synthesis to deal with the problem. “Protein synthesis in our cells occurs by adding the amino acids one by one. We use the same method for making synthetic polymers where we add distinct monomers in a one-by-one fashion. This allows us to precisely control the sequence in a linear arrangement,” said Hao Yu, a graduate student in the Schroeder Group, and the Moore Group led by Jeff Moore, the Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair and professor of chemistry.

After making the materials, the researchers studied their charge transport properties using single molecule techniques. In this way, they were able to measure the conductance through single chains, much like a ‘molecular wire.’

“Molecular wires are generally good at transporting charge,” Schroeder said. “We wanted to know how the charge transport properties change if the overall sequence changes.”

Yu added molecular anchors at both ends of the chain molecule to enable the characterization. “We used a technique called the scanning tunneling microscope-break junction method, where the anchors link to two gold electrodes and form a molecular junction,” said Songsong Li, a graduate student in the Schroeder Group. “Then we impose an applied bias or voltage across the molecule, and this allows us to measure the charge transport properties of these polymers.”

“Currently the synthesis method is labor intensive,” Schroeder said. “Moving forward, we are developing automated synthesis methods in the Beckman Institute to generate large libraries of sequence-defined molecules.”

“The implications of this work are significant,” said Dawanne Poree, program manager at the Army Research Office that supports the work. “It’s often been wondered if the sequence-dependent properties observed in biological polymers could translate to synthetic polymeric materials. This work represents a step toward answering this question. Additionally, this work provides key insights into how molecular structure can be rationally designed and manipulated to render materials with designer properties of interest to the Army such as nanoelectronics, energy transport, molecular encoding, and data storage, self-healing, and more.”

The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Defense by a multidisciplinary university research initiative through the Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

Editor’s note: The paper “Charge Transport in Sequence-Defined Conjugated Oligomers” can be found at https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.0c00043.

John Francis “Jack” Welch Jr., 84, the former CEO and chairman of General Electric Co., has died. He earned a Ph.D. in 1960 in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Welch went to work as a chemical engineer at GE immediately after completing his doctorate. He started in its plastics division and quickly gained prominence in the company, becoming a vice president in 1972 and vice chairman and executive officer in 1979. He was named chairman and CEO in 1981 at the age of 45. He remained at the helm for the next 20 years.

Cover of Jack Welch's book, Winning
Courtesy of Harper Business.

In 1983, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his “leadership in developing engineered plastics and for increasing national recognition of the importance of technology and innovation.”

Welch oversaw two decades of prosperity at GE and was lauded for his aggressive approach that slashed tens of thousands of jobs, bought and sold a variety of businesses and moved the company into financial services and consulting. According to CNBC, the company’s market value rose from $12 billion to $410 billion during his tenure.

After retiring from GE in 2001, Welch worked as a consultant and speaker, and also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Welch and fellow students at Illinois were great supporters of their former adviser, James Westwater, and together helped establish the James W. Westwater Professorship in Chemical Engineering in 1986.

The photo contains two rows of students in 1958 with Professor James Westwater at the University of Illinois.
Heat Transfer Research Group at the University of Illinois, circa 1958. Top row: E. Ray Hosler, Jim E. Benjamin, Professor James Westwater, L. Jack Thomas, R.F. Gaertner. Bottom: Don E. Westerheide, John “Jack” F. Welch, A. Orell, Tom Dunskus. Photo courtesy Ray Hosler.

Welch is survived by four children, Katherine Welch, John Welch III, Anne Welch and Mark Welch; two former wives, Carolyn Carson and Jane Beasley Welch; and his third wife, the former Suzy Wetlaufer, whom he married in 2004.

Congratulations to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate student Johnny Ching-Wei Lee, who has been selected to receive the 2020 Prize for Outstanding Student Research from the Neutron Scattering Society of America.

Lee is a member of professor Simon Rogers’ lab. His research has focused on how molecules rearrange and affect the flow and deformation characteristics of soft materials, such as synthetic and biological polymers, under dynamically-changing flows.

“I’m deeply pleased and honored to receive this prestigious award,” said Lee, who wished to thank his advisor and his collaborators at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Institut Laue-Langevin.

Johnny Ching-Wei Lee

NSSA established the prize to recognize outstanding accomplishments in neutron scattering by students who have performed much of their work at North American neutron facilities. Nominations are reviewed by a committee of experts in the field of neutron science.

The award will be presented at the society’s annual meeting this summer.

Lee completed his undergraduate studies at National Taiwan University and joined the University of Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as a graduate student in 2015.

His work involves characterization and molecular design of synthetic and biological soft materials under flows. He combines advanced rheological methods with neutron scattering techniques to simultaneously monitor the macroscopic material response and in-situ molecular rearrangements. He has successfully unveiled complex structure-rheology correlations, leading to new design criteria for soft materials.

After he graduates from Illinois with his PhD in Chemical Engineering, Lee plans to join Corteva as a research scientist with its Formulation Science and Technology R&D Team.

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