First TTU ChemE graduates receive "Distinction in the Major" Enhanced Degrees

When four Tennessee Tech University graduates received their bachelor's degrees this spring, they culminated a distinctive experience they shared during the past year.

When four chemical engineering graduates — Richard Lawson, Crystal Childers, Kurt Johanns and Robyn Rawlings — accepted their degrees at Tennessee Tech University’s spring commencement, they were the first graduates of their department's “Distinction in the Major” program that promises to open doors for undergraduates interested in research. They each spent their last year as undergraduates delving into research projects that promise to make a difference in other's lives.

“This was an opportunity to challenge myself,” explained Childers, who is headed to work as a design engineer at the Department of Energy's Y-12 plant while pursing online graduate classes through North Carolina State.

The brainchild of Pedro Arce, TTU's Chemical Engineering Chairperson, the DITM program offers chemical engineering students an enhanced bachelor's degree with structured research activities and requires a written thesis and an oral defense of the project. Donald P. Visco Jr., associate professor of chemical engineering and the department's undergraduate program coordinator, also played an instrumental part in the program. Administered by TTU's Honors Program, DITM recognizes the potential for undergraduate research experience. Two of the participants, Childers and Lawson, achieved university-wide honors as in cursu honorum graduates.

The competitive selection process requires candidates to provide a recommendation letter from a faculty member and to meet grade and experience requirements, including a 3.2 GPA. Once they make the cut, students are paired with professors who mentor them through research techniques.

"The Honors Program is very pleased to support this innovative commitment to undergraduate scholarship," said Connie Hood, TTU's Honors Program Director.

Childer's project, "I-QSAR Studies Using Signature on COX-2 Inhibitors," and Rawlings' topic, "I-QSAR Studies Using Signature on DHFR Inhibitors," allowed them to work alongside Visco.

Childers helped search for new pharmaceutical formulas for arthritis medicines to replace Vioxx and Celebrex that would lessen side effects. Rawlings' research looked at developing new inhibitors for dihydrofolate reducatase, which is important in the treatment of pneumonia in those individuals with compromised immune systems.
Rawlings, who will be working as a manufacturing engineer for Proctor & Gamble Co., said she feels that her involvement in this challenging program gave her valuable experience in setting and achieving personal goals.

"Proctor & Gamble seemed extremely interested in my experiences above and beyond what is normally offered in an undergraduate curriculum," said Rawlings.

Lawson, who will pursue graduate studies at Georgia Tech this fall, worked with Chunsheng Wang, an assistant professor and faculty member in the Center for Manufacturing Research. Lawson worked on one of the university's primary research areas, fuel cells, in his project " Nafion-BIMEVOX Composite Membrane for Fuel Cell Applications."

Johanns, who secured a job with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, collaborated on a project with TTU professor Joseph J. Biernacki to study pore structure characterization in order to create desired properties at a larger level in "Revisiting Thermoporosimetry as a Technique for Pore Structure Characterization."

"This program definitely better prepared me for graduate school,” said Lawson. I got a trial run at a mini-thesis and gained presentation experience.”
Johanns agreed that the opportunity to understand the structure of how research is conducted was invaluable.

"During this year we've strengthened our skills, especially our oral presentations, and stepped beyond what we expected from this program," said Johanns.

Visco said, "It is great practice for graduate school as well as a résumé enhancer for those looking at industrial positions. We look forward to providing the results of this pilot test to the College of Engineering for possible adoption by the other departments."

Visco said he believes the DITM program will increase regional visibility for the university, encourage students, particularly transfer students, to consider TTU, and influence student placement in high-valued industrial positions as well as in top-tier graduate programs.

"This is a way for motivated and qualified students to add value to their education and experience," he said.
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