When Russell Perry of Johnson City, Tennessee first stepped onto Tennessee Tech University’s campus, he brought with him an interest in chemical engineering and enough dual-enrollment credits to start as a sophomore. His father had graduated from Tech with a degree in chemical engineering, so when Perry showed up at SOAR, the university’s student orientation program, he felt he was exactly where he needed to be.
“The year that I came, they introduced the biomolecular engineering concentration, and that was right up my alley,” he said. “Also, financially, it was the best option. Out of five or six other schools, the only one that really offered me the most scholarship money was Tech.”
Not only was Perry ahead on credits when he started, but he also decided to take the Fast Track program, which allows students to start earning credits toward their master’s degree while they are working on their bachelor’s. He graduated this past spring within three years with a 4.0 and is now working on the higher degree, with plans to ultimately go after his Ph.D.
Perry took two undergraduate courses with Pedro E. Arce, professor of chemical engineering, who remembers him well.
“He was a very alert and focused-style student in my undergraduate classes and always willing to help other students with the understanding of complex subjects such as physics of transport,” Arce said. “His unique ability of using mathematics to explain the physics of things helps him to offer a clear description of how a system would work”.
Right now, Perry has set his sights on researching medicines to fight cancer. His interest was piqued in the career back in high school when he wrote and presented a research paper on new cancer treatment methods. He was so fascinated when he got the chance to interview local oncologists that he decided to pursue it as a possible career.
Perry was further encouraged to go down that path when he witnessed his undergraduate advisor at Tech, Mary Daniels, go through a cancer battle of her own. He wanted to be able to contribute to the science that would make her fight – and the fight of millions of others – that much easier.
“During my junior year I did undergraduate research with Dr. Pedro Arce and Dr. Robby Sanders on the methodology of biofluid mixing. Then, for my bimolecular concentration, we take some additional classes that the other chemical engineering majors do not, like biochemistry and biotechnology processing. That opened the door to gene engineering and that kind of thing, and that was super interesting to me. So that's kind of confirmed that is what I want to do in the future.”
This summer, Perry starts his master’s level research with Sanders on a protein gene found in the lungs.
“Some people have a deficiency in that protein that leads to early onset emphysema,” he explained. “Over 300,000 Americans have it don't know it. So, we're looking at ways to engineer something that people could take as a medication to teach their body to create that protein so that it does that on its own.”
In addition to officially starting his master’s this summer with a head start from the credits earned during the Fast Track program, Perry is also spending time at SOAR, helping incoming Tech freshmen learn the ins and outs of the campus before they start this fall. In previous summers he served as a student orientation leader which not only involved helping new students learn the layout of the campus but also helping them break the ice to make friends with fellow freshmen. That way, when they all start in the fall, the students will start their college journey with some already familiar faces.
“I really like how we do it here,” Perry said. “We walk you through everything, not to belittle you, but to just show you the ropes. If you haven’t been on campus before, it’s a big place.”
This summer, Perry is working at SOAR as a student coordinator. This new position has him working behind the scenes to make sure all the student orientation leaders are well-organized and have everything they need to ensure visiting freshmen and their families have a great introduction to campus.
In his spare time during the semester, Perry also tutors fellow students in math and sciences such as chemistry and biology, as well as serving as a peer mentor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. In addition, he is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering and was a senator for the College of Engineering in the Student Government Association.
“Russell is eager to learn and is a real team player. He carries great interpersonal skills and is very intelligent, and has excellent communication skills,” said Daniels, his undergraduate advisor. “He took the opportunity of carrying out independent research and successfully worked in groups as well. His intellectual potential and attentiveness are well evident by the fact he obtained a good, sound knowledge during his undergraduate studies.”