November 11, 2009

In Pursuit of a Ph.D.

Jessica Jenkins ’07 writes about studying for a career in healing environmental damage

By Jessica Jenkins ’07

Jessica Jenkins ’07 is a third-year doctoral student at North Carolina State University in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. She recently received a National Institutes of Health/NCSU Molecular Biotechnology Training Program traineeship, established to enhance students’ research and training in molecular biotechnology beyond the exposure provided by the doctoral program. She is the travel and thesis fund administrator for University Graduate Student Association, overseeing all graduate student travel and thesis expense reimbursements at North Carolina State. She is a member of Sigma Xi, Phi Beta Kappa, and Tau Beta Pi, and graduated Lafayette summa cum laude with honors in chemical engineering. At Lafayette, she held several offices in Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and served as scholarship chair on the 2007 Panhellenic Council.

Graduate school is more about creating independent thinkers than molding students who are able to answer questions on advanced topics. Therefore, we face the daunting challenge of seeking, questioning, and testing original ideas. Because Lafayette gave me an outstanding education that taught me how to think analytically, creatively, and independently, I can meet this challenge head on. My various classes at Lafayette, especially those centered around engineering, science, and mathematics, and the incalculable time spent in office hours with my professors gave me the confidence and skills necessary to analyze and solve almost any problem in the laboratory.

The most challenging aspect of graduate school continues to be mastering my thesis project. Most undergraduate in-class experiments have expected or typical results. I have found that thesis experiments are not so simple, especially in the first few years when you are performing your experiments for the first time. Because no one has worked with your particular system, you have no results with which to compare your data, so you cannot always readily tell if you have unique, meaningful data or simply an experimental error.

For an experiment in which I was manipulating size ratios of different particles to see how it affects particle interactions, I performed a bunch of calculations and made various particle blends from these calculations. After I spread the blends onto microscope slides and analyzed the resulting coatings, I had an interaction that I had not seen to date in my work, so I became very excited. When I showed my results to my advisers, they were somewhat dubious, which is never a good sign. I went back through my lab notebook to check and verify my procedure. Turns out, I made a calculation error that skewed the blended solution and the subsequent results.

I worked as a teaching assistant for the Unit Operations laboratories; these classes use various experiments to teach undergraduate chemical engineering students how to operate and understand equipment fundamental to the discipline. My particular experiment required several stepwise calculations (result A from equation A is needed for equation B, result B from equation B is needed for equation C, etc.) that had to be completed correctly before the students could move on to a new data set. These calculations also required formulas that had to be created from data found in handbooks. The experiment had 48 trials in total, which equated to a lot of calculations and time in the laboratory!

If the students looked up the necessary data, made a spreadsheet, and tested their calculations for accuracy beforehand, all they had to do was type six numbers from the equipment display into the spreadsheet during the laboratory. The calculations were automatically performed and the students would know right away if their data were satisfactory to finish the trial. This prep work could save them from spending copious hours in the lab. I strongly advised every group to do the prep work beforehand, but one group did not heed my advice, and, as a result, spent an extra two hours in the laboratory and had to repeat parts of the experiment because their calculations and subsequent data were faulty. The whole incident reinforced the importance of listening to people with experience because they know what they are doing and can save you from wasting extra time and energy.

Completing an honors thesis with Professors Javad Tavakoli and Art Kney was invaluable preparation for graduate school. The experience not only taught me the technical side of research (especially how to write and defend a research plan), but also how to be a better experimentalist. My thesis project, which involved treating resins with different transition metals (copper, nickel, etc.) and then testing each resin’s ability to strip perchlorate (a contaminant that disrupts the human thyroid gland) from a contaminated wastewater stream, forced me to learn how to work efficiently in the laboratory, a valuable skill for anyone who shares laboratory space and resources. Also, because the project was based on an interdisciplinary effort under the guidance of professors in chemical engineering, civil engineering, chemistry, and biology, I gained invaluable experience in conveying ideas to a broad, diverse audience.

At my department’s in-house student poster competition, a professor with work experience in both academia and industry asked me about my poster. Well, we got off on a tangent about how most engineering projects are interdisciplinary and a cooperative effort because no engineer can complete the project alone — there are simply too many factors involved. I like to think this particular tangent arose because my thesis project has two advisers and is a cross between chemical engineering and microbiology. I remember this professor saying that successful completion of any engineering project requires that all involved parties talk openly and freely about their respective contributions and work together productively.

This conversation shows that there is so much more to being a good engineer than just knowing a lot of math and science — you have to hone your interpersonal skills in addition to your technical knowledge. You can master all the technical aspects of your work, but it means nothing if you cannot convey your knowledge and ideas to others.

My ultimate career goal of working in the research and development division of the environmental sector is a direct result of my time at Lafayette. My environmental courses, both in chemical engineering and chemistry, and work as an EXCEL Scholar showed me that I could use my education to help minimize the environmental damage caused by my profession. Every class I took at Lafayette helped augment the skill set that I need to make my career goal a reality.  In the summer of 2006, my internship with ARCADIS, an environmental consulting firm, let me experience the industrial side of research.

So, what does life after Lafayette mean for me?  Right now, it means earning my doctoral degree and finding that delicate balance between work and fun. Although much in my life is still undecided, I am not worried because my Lafayette education and experiences will see me through whatever challenges I encounter along the way.

posted in Alumni

tagged with ,