Chemical engineering major inspired to think globally

Christopher Roberts (sixth from left) and Professor Pushpavanam (fifth from left) with fellow engineering students at IITM. 

Christopher Roberts, a chemical engineering major at Wayne State University, recently concluded a four-month Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India (IITM). According to Roberts, this life-changing experience would not have transpired without his involvement in the College of Engineering’s Industry Mentorship Program.

In 2017, Roberts was selected to take part in the newly established program, where he was paired with alumnus Donald Smolenski, MSChE '79, PhDChE '90, who emphasized the importance of versatility and global perspective in the field of engineering. This insight motivated him to pursue international REU programs for a chance to work with students who might provide new view points on familiar topics.

“I need to be able to take a step back and think, ‘How are they looking at the problem? How am I looking at the problem, and how do we come together?’” said Roberts.

Once selected, Roberts chose a research area best-suited to his interests. Deciding upon microfluidics, he worked under Institute Chair Professor Subramaniam Pushpavanam of the IITM Department of Chemical Engineering to conduct research focused on the creation of water-in-diesel emulsion (WiDE), an alternative fuel for diesel engines.

“WiDE has shown the ability to reduce the level of toxic gas emissions and improve combustion efficiency,” said Roberts. “These toxic emissions create a large problem in countries like India and China, where the smog can be extremely dangerous.”

While at IITM, Roberts worked alongside students from the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, China and Japan.

“We all cover the same subjects, but our outlook is totally different,” said Roberts. “That was really exciting to see.”

As a student who was once unsure of his path, Roberts expressed that his summer at IITM not only ignited his passion for research, but also illuminated how much perspective is gained from stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

“If you’re interested in something, take a chance,” said Roberts. “Something as simple as writing a two-minute email could change the next 30 years of your life.”

Since returning from India, Roberts attended the annual AIChE meeting in Pittsburgh, where he was awarded third place in "Fuels, Petrochemicals and Energy II" for his ongoing WiDE research.

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