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TTU News

thumb_TTU10465-006Two Tennessee Tech University students have broadened the profile of the university’s chemical engineering program by winning prestigious national awards.

Doctoral student Jennifer Pascal and post-doctoral student Derick Weis took advantage of international and national competitive awards to showcase their research, which both say is a testament to the learning/research environment in their department.

“Jennifer and Derick are among our top students in terms of the quality of research they conduct under the guidance and mentorship of their professors,” said Francis Otuonye, TTU’s associate vice president for research and graduate studies. “The synergy between teaching and research is a strong attribute of our programs.”

Pascal won the 2010 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Separations Division Graduate Student Award, a highly competitive award with a global request for nominations.

A highly productive student with numerous presentations at national meetings and several published papers, Pascal won based on her peer-review paper explaining how to improve separation efficiency in the development of new pharmaceuticals.

“In addition, Jennifer’s models are effective to study protein-modification by either chemical or nano-engineered particle contamination, an area related to environmental-proteomics of great interest for our Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources,” said Pedro Arce, chemical engineering department chairperson.

“With this improvement, we can help shorten the time a clinical diagnosis takes, in some cases from weeks to a day,” said Pascal.

“We use analytical mathematical modeling to find the optimal separation times for biomolecules,” she said. “No other group has been able to achieve that so far.”

Pascal says in the several years she has studied at TTU, she’s seen the department almost triple in size and its students become very active in competitive national conference situations.

“We do have a good reputation,” Pascal said. “And we do just fine against nationally recognized programs. For example, I have presented side by side with students from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern, to name a few.”

Pascal also says Arce, her adviser, pushes faculty to be better facilitators using his award-winning Hi-PeLE concept as a template that encourages faculty/student interaction. She says that freshmen who come to visit the department during orientation immediately become excited.

“No one else has this environment,” said Pascal, who holds a certificate of Distinction in Major, a program initiated by the chemical engineering department to attract undergraduates to research. She is also a Graduate Diversity Fellow in a program administered by TTU’s Office of Research.

Weis, who has earned three degrees through the department, says you can just look at national and regional awards list and see how many TTU chemical engineering students, undergraduate and graduate, are succeeding. He is a product of a new BS-MS Fast Track program in the department.

“We’re right up there,” said Weiss. “I think you can look at the growth of the undergraduate department and see that research opportunities are really attractive to students.”

Weis speaks from experience. He’s won two National Science Foundation awards: a spot in the International Research Fellowship Program in Fall 2010 and a place in the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship in June 2009.

This fall, the IRFP will take him to Australia, where he spent last summer in collaborative research, to further his work presented in the project  “Computer-Aided Molecular Design of Ionic Liquids for the Pretreatment of Cellulose.”

“Cellulose is an abundant, renewable resource available from plants that can be turned into ethanol and help replace fossil fuels,” said Weis.

“Currently, the cost of cellulose is too high for practical consideration,” he explained. “Environmentally friendly solvents, know as ionic liquids, have been identified for a pretreatment step in the production of cellulosic ethanol as a way to reduce the cost by making it easier for enzymes to break down biomass into fermentable sugars.”

Weis says his work focuses on designing compounds on a computer before they get to the lab to save time and money by knowing the signatures before time-consuming lab work takes place.

Weis has worked with faculty member Don Visco since his undergraduate days in the area of ionic liquids as a way to reduce the cost of biofuels.

“Using Dr. Visco’s computer-aided design we’ve made strides in learning about the synthesis and characterization of these liquids.”

He says the growth he’s seen in the program can be largely attributed to each faculty member having an almost 50/50 balance of teaching and research.

“Dr. Visco always makes time for students,” said Weis. “He works with a combination of different styles, lecture and active learning.”

“Jennifer and Derick’s successes are a great testimonial that students do not necessarily have to move to other universities to become successful in graduate school,” said Arce. “This is a misconception used by some colleagues.

“In fact, with the ‘global or flat world’ of possibilities many research-oriented universities are recruiting their own students, a trend that our department has found very successful.”