Internships, co-ops and jobs: Chemical engineering graduate students share their success stories

“Internship” and “co-op” are types of work experiences most often heard in regard to undergraduate students to help them achieve real world work experience before graduation. But for those who pursue graduate degrees, co-ops and internships are equally important for grabbing the brass ring once they receive their advanced degrees.

Both current graduate students and some who have received their degrees and have entered the workforce shared thoughts about their ISU internship and graduate experiences and how those helped them succeed on their career path.

Fatima Enam could be found in the hallways and labs of Sweeney Hall from 2015-2019 as she pursued her Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Today you’ll find her at Stanford University working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Lab of Justin Sonnenburg in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine.

Enam did her graduate work under the guidance of CBE’s Karen and Dennis Vaughn Faculty Fellow and assistant professor Tom Mansell. Her work focused on harnessing the programmability of microbes to understand the role of prebiotic oligosaccharides (carbohydrates that are formed when sugars link together). Her current research focuses on developing approaches to engineer the gut microbiota and using in vivo gnotobiotic mouse models to understand underlying host-microbe interactions. She was named an MIT Chemical Rising Star, a Leader of Tomorrow by the 2020 GapSummit and was selected as a delegate to the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany.

While at ISU she interned with Cargill’s Biotechnology Research and Development in Plymouth, Minnesota. She says, “From day one, I was handed a project and I saw it to completion. I had an amazing mentor who had complete faith in me. I helped develop a tool that could potentially save the company millions of dollars annually. The impact that you get to make in industry is immense and that was very gratifying. The best part of the internship was the people I got to work with and the professional network I created.”

Of her time in CBE, Enam says, “I have a deep sense of gratitude for the department. It really is a wonderful community and I constantly felt surrounded by caring people. I always felt all of the faculty and staff were really invested in my wellbeing and I am very grateful for that.”

Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) is a business that has recognized the promise of Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering students. Graduate students Hamed Bateni and Daniel Vincent Sahayaraj did simultaneous internships in ADM’s Process Chemistry and Catalysis Group starting in November of 2019.

“Dr. Tessonnier (associate professor Jean-Philippe Tessonnier), informed us about this incredible NSF program providing supplemental funding for students working on an active NSF grant to pursue an internship in a non-academic research setting,” said Bateni. “He encouraged us to take advantage of this opportunity to obtain an industrial experience sooner rather than later. We discussed this opportunity with Dr. Karl Albrecht (an Iowa State Chemical and Biological Engineering graduate) and Dr. Erik Hagberg (an ISU organic chemistry graduate) at ADM, and they showed interest in hosting us in their group.”

Bateni’s primary project was about the development of a catalytic process to produce a target product with a substantial business interest at ADM. Sahayaraj’s project involved the investigation of the technological feasibility of a reaction route for the synthesis of a specialty chemical. Both students reported extensive collaboration with several colleagues at ADM as well as external collaborators, and both echoed the value it brought to their professional development. “It was definitely a pleasure working with this very talented set of colleagues with amazing personalities that made the whole experience truly phenomenal,” remarked Bateni.

Bateni is expecting to receive his Ph.D. in the next two years; Sahayaraj looks to receive his degree in the fall of 2021.

Albrecht supervised Bateni and Sahayaraj in their internships. “Both Daniel and Hamed made meaningful and measurable progress during their internships,” he remarked. Their six-month NSF Fellowship duration allowed sufficient time to more fully grasp the challenges associated with their research, create hypotheses and perform the appropriate experiments.

“Throughout their internship, we took the approach of including Hamed and Daniel on all aspects of project management and execution. Our goal was to provide as broad of an experience in industrial research as possible. Daniel and Hamed also benefitted from mentoring interviews with several ADM leaders. ADM benefited from the diversity of experience, expertise and outside perspectives Daniel and Hamed brought from their own projects at Iowa State.”

Sadaf Charkhabi did graduate research work in the lab of assistant professor and Jack R. and Carol A. Johnson Faculty Fellow Nigel Reuel, and landed an internship with DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, in 2018. She worked on developing conductive pastes for screen printing resonant sensors as well as exploration of the effect of different processing parameters on the sensor quality signal.

Her Ph.D. research centered on design and development of inexpensive contact-free resonant sensors. These sensors can potentially be used in an enclosed controlled system for real-time monitoring of biological analytes. She also worked on different applications of these sensors for monitoring many things, including bacterial growth for food safety applications. After graduating in the summer of 2020, she received a job offer from 3M and will be a senior research engineer in the company’s Biomaterials Cluster in St. Paul, Minnesota. “I met with 3M in an on-campus interview and then received the job offer,” she said.

“I worked on multiple projects and there were research failures at times,” she said of her graduate experience. “However, my determination to pursue my career in this field, as well as the help and support I received from others, drove me forward. It’s the ultimate reward. In order to be a successful graduate student researcher, you must take ownership of your work and direct it toward your goal,” she added.

Oregon is the new home of Russell Mahmood, who received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Iowa State in May of 2019. He’s now a lithography process engineer for Intel, supporting nanometer technology to create intricate nanoscale patterns on silicon surfaces which become functional microprocessors in computer devices that are used every day.

When Mahmood was at Iowa State he worked in the lab of professor and Reginald R. Baxter Endowed Department Chair Andrew Hillier. Mahmood said, “My research was very much aligned with my current job. In Dr. Hillier’s lab, I advanced the capability of interference lithography to pattern unique nanostructures, which proved useful in building several types of photonic devices.”

He interned at the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. “I worked on an interesting project involving spatial Atomic Layer Deposition (sALD) technique. It’s a technique where we deposit materials atomic layer by atomic layer,” he said. “I developed a prototype to deliver materials in the aqueous phase. I designed and built the prototype using stereolithography printing. I also automated the moving parts.

“I am immensely grateful to Dr. Hillier for the independence he offered me in my research at Iowa State. My projects were open ended, and I could steer them in any direction I wanted, but he was always there to guide me whenever I felt lost.

“The ISU chemical engineering department has provided me with great opportunities to learn and grow,” he said, and added he thinks every Iowa State chemical engineering graduate student should develop certain skills during their graduate work: communication skills, developing contacts outside of ISU and developing skills in working as a team – and that his Iowa State experience helped him achieve all three.