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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Meet our Students

PhD student Chris Torres joined the department in Fall 2018

What led you to the U of I and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering?

I had several choices for graduate school. What I liked most about U of I and ChBE were the wide range of topics I was interested in for research, as well as how approachable faculty and current grad students were. I believed that I would be able to perform excellent research and take advantage of the facilities and reputation of U of I to achieve my professional goals, but perhaps more importantly, I also felt I could “fit in” with the people around me. I’m that weird person that always talks to strangers in public, and the community here seemed to embrace that right away and accommodate my eccentricities. *laughs*

Tell us about the research you do in the Flaherty Lab.

I was drawn to Prof. Dave Flaherty’s group for many reasons. I developed an interest in studying molecular-scale phenomena throughout my undergraduate research career, and Prof. Flaherty’s research themes matched with my desire to become a skilled, detail-oriented experimentalist. In Dave’s group, I study heterogeneous catalysis at solid-liquid interfaces, specifically the effect of extended interactions between a catalyst surface, reactive intermediate species, and reactant and co-solvent molecules for liquid-phase oxidation reactions. We synthesize and characterize materials for use in classical chemical engineering reactors to evaluate reaction kinetics, which are combined with in situ spectroscopic and calorimetric techniques to further inform our understanding of the fundamental phenomena governing heterogeneous catalysis. One of our main goals from this research is to create design rules for novel catalysts or inform reaction conditions which may reduce the environmental impact of the chemical industry for a wide array of chemical systems.

What made you study this particular area of chemical engineering? What do you love about this field?

I always had an interest in what happens at length scales below what the human eye can resolve. My step-father worked at a semiconductor fabrication facility when I was a child, and he often brought home defective “chips” for me to collect. I was destined to be an electrical engineer, I believe, before I took my first chemistry class in college. I quickly fell in love with the language of atoms and molecules, realizing that everything (quite literally) is made of atoms and molecules, including semiconductors.

So, I made the switch to chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico and realized throughout my undergraduate research opportunities that there are several different ways to explore molecular-scale science. In one way or another, every project I worked on was rooted in sustainability efforts. I was involved in school clubs during undergrad where we cleaned up refuse around the community, among other tasks, and I began to realize I could have an impact on my environment through the research I perform, as well.

What I love most about my work is that I can contribute to the fight to keep our planet healthy for future generations while also satiating my own desire to continue exploring molecular-scale phenomena.

You recently were selected for a prestigious Ford fellowship and NSF fellowship. What did it mean to you to be recognized with these honors?

Wow… that’s still how I feel about that, weeks after receiving the news. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am now, as I know so many of my peers have, also. Earning these fellowships, one primarily for my contribution to diversity in STEM (Ford) and the other for my potential as an impactful researcher (NSF), really gave me the motivation to continue in my studies and pave ground for future scholars like me. I came from a tough background (1st gen. college graduate, minority status, etc.) where I often had to learn things the hard way, in school and in life, and it would be awesome if future generations could learn from my mistakes and avoid the pitfalls that I encountered along my path to higher learning in STEM. I think it is an incredible honor and opportunity I have received, and I want to make sure that I make the most out of it so I can give back more later.

Favorite way or place to unwind on or off-campus?

I love coming home after lab to relax, play video games, and hang out with Butters, my cat. Some of my fellow grads and I will play pick-up basketball at the gym to let off steam once in a while, and most weekends many of us can be found in downtown Champaign, tossing one back and looking for bar food. I enjoy putting together model kits and tinkering with electronics as well.

What are your plans for after you receive your PhD?

I would love to find a postdoctoral research position in a big city like NYC or Tokyo to experience the big city life for a couple years, before eventually settling down into an academic role, primarily teaching, where I can impart my life lessons on future scientists and engineers. Eventually, I’d like to return to the University of New Mexico to teach and reinsert myself to the Hispanic community which I grew up in.


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