Caroline Fakharzadeh ’20 in lab

Bucknell Chemical Engineering Majors Win Big at National Conference

March 11, 2019

by Gretchen Pelletier

Caroline Fakharzadeh ’20 is one of 32 chemical engineering majors who brought home 10 awards at the American Institute of Chemical Engineering National Student Conference. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Caroline Fakharzadeh '20, a chemical engineering major from Malvern, Pa., figured she'd be in good company when she chose to pursue her love of math and science at Bucknell. After recently attending a national conference of chemical engineers, she has a better idea of how good her campus community is — and how important.

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Last fall, Fakharzadeh and several of her classmates worked closely with their professors and advisers to distill their laboratory experiences into posters, presentations and papers. A delegation of 32 Bucknell students headed to Pittsburgh for the three-day 2018 American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE) National Student Conference.

You might say Bucknell swept the competition.

Professor Ryan Snyder, chemical engineering adviser to the campus AIChE chapter, put it more modestly: "Bucknell was very well decorated this year." Of six national essay contests, two were won by Bucknell students, while five student research presenters placed in the top three of their respective categories. Bucknell received recognition as an outstanding student chapter, placing it among the top 10 percent in the country. In all, the group brought home 10 awards.

That's largely due to the College of Engineering's culture of providing hands-on laboratory experience from students' first year on campus.

Because Bucknell is a student-focused campus with a low ratio of graduate students, undergraduates are vital contributors who help drive the research in their professors' laboratories. They learn by doing journal-worthy work with real-world applications and implications.

Fakharzadeh does pharmaceutical-related research in Snyder's lab. The poster she created to describe that work earned her a second-place award in the materials science division. She joined Snyder's lab in the second semester of her second year. In June, the graduate student she was working under earned his degree, passing his research project on to Fakharzadeh. "That summer I worked in the lab full-time for 10 weeks," she said, and she's continued to work there since then, managing a facet of Snyder's broader investigation and gaining invaluable experience on the continuum of research. Next year she'll be among the more experienced members of her lab, allowing for a leadership role.

The AIChE Conference gave Fakharzadeh and her classmates a different kind of real-world experience. This is the top annual gathering of chemical engineering professionals, with an overlapping college student component that draws 1,500 to 2,000 participants from campuses across the country.

Bucknell students not only competed in poster and essay competitions, they also chose from an agenda of professional development workshops and seminars, and networked with potential employers at a career fair. They bonded with classmates, made new friends at a graduating senior mixer and got out to see a bit of the city.

Connections and Community
This was the third conference for Mackenzie Todd '19, a chemical engineering major from Ithaca, N.Y., who this year received the Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Scholarship Award for outstanding academic achievement and involvement in student chapter activities. Todd is exploring graduate programs, and used the conference as a way to connect with recruiters.

Hearing the excitement in one recruiter's descriptions of his work and lifestyle particularly inspired Todd, sparking an ah-ha! realization. "Big business and big money have never been my dreams," she said. "I've been wondering if I would be happier looking into more pressing issues related to sustainability. Recently, my answer has been leaning toward yes. It makes sense that people concerned with sustainable societal lifestyles might also care about a sustainable personal lifestyle." Now she's not only thinking about career paths, but also the life balance that goes with them.

For Fakharzadeh the future is looking like industry, and at the conference she connected with professionals who shed light on skill sets she hadn't considered. "Two talks that I found particularly interesting covered the interviewing process," she said. "Companies want to see if you'd be a good fit not only for the technical position, but also as a member of the company community."

Fakharzadeh recognizes the parallel with her choice of Bucknell for her undergraduate degree, where she's not lost in the anonymity of huge lecture halls. "Last semester I had a class with only 10 students. The professor had us over to brunch!"

She's learning the realities of her field, and — among the lasting takeaways from the conference — the value of being part of a community.