Professorships keep CBE on global stage

Posted on 25. Jul, 2014 by in Academic Departments, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Features, Gift Report, Issues, People, Research

UW-Madison’s reputation as a center for chemical and biological engineering has a lot to do with someone who graduated from the department nearly a century ago.
Milton J. Shoemaker earned his UW-Madison chemical engineering degree in 1921, and went on to found Research Products Corporation, which operates in Madison. In the late 1980s, Shoemaker and his wife Anna Maude Shoemaker endowed a professorship whose benefits did and still do go far beyond research.

Tom Kuech

Tom Kuech

Currently, Thomas Kuech and Sean Palecek hold Shoemaker professorships. Honoring distinguished faculty and providing support for their research groups, professorships such as these are critical to the university’s ability to recruit and retain top faculty.

It is not easy to find resources for faculty to participate in the important and interesting projects and programs that help them stay on the cutting edge, Kuech says. However, these activities can help the department build crucial international connections. Kuech has used resources provided by the Shoemaker professorship to teach summer courses in areas where graduate students might not otherwise have access to international perspectives on engineering. Often with help from his own graduate students, Kuech has helped develop these programs in countries including China and Romania, and in summer 2014 he will participate in a special graduate student summer school in San Sebastian, Spain.

The professorship has enabled Kuech and his students to take a greater role in international professional organizations, bringing greater visibility to the department and UW-Madison as a whole.

The Shoemaker legacy also supports much-needed efforts to build a stronger international community in the stem-cell engineering field, a major focus for Palecek and his students. Collaborating across national borders serves the basic mission of an exchange of ideas, but can also help stem-cell research advances be put to use in their application areas. “What’s important here is that different countries have a different focus on what to do,” Palecek says. “The United States is very basic-research-oriented and that’s where our strengths are, and other countries have prioritized commercialization or translation to patient therapies—and these projects are hard to fund through traditional mechanisms.”

Sean Palecek

Sean Palecek

One way Palecek pursues this stem-cell diplomacy is a new partnership in the works with with Instituto Superior Técnico. Palecek hopes PhD students from UW-Madison and IST can spend a couple of years at each institution, absorbing both the basic research emphasized in American stem-cell labs and the commercial development emphasized elsewhere. Within the United States, Palecek and partners from five other universities are working to create a more well-rounded foundation for PhD-level stem-cell education.

Within his lab, Palecek also uses Shoemaker Professorship funding to translate his group’s research into commercially viable processes and tools, which is a research undertaking unto itself. To get stem-cell breakthroughs into a context where they can help people, researchers and their partners in industry have to simplify processes and remove the barriers to scaling them up. And that phase of the work simply isn’t supported by the kind of grants that are available to researchers in the United States. This past year, about 40 students from UW-Madison and elsewhere took part in a course that used videoconferencing to combine a range of academic and industry perspectives. “The students see that we don’t always agree with each other, and so they feel like they can put their ideas out there,” Palecek says.

It’s that collaborative spirit—as well as the startup resources that other such professorships provide—that Kuech says will help the department continue to both reward current faculty and recruit new senior faculty. The department is currently looking to hire new faculty with expertise in such areas as computational thermodynamics, computational modeling of processes, and the synthesis of nanomaterials for energy applications.

Thanks to the help of the Shoemaker professorship, UW-Madison will have a great advantage to make sure that Kuech and Palecek’s efforts—and UW-Madison’s long-standing leadership in chemical and biological engineering—are recognized on the global stage. “The Shoemaker professorship has helped give my students a broader perspective on the world of science and the globalization of ideas,” Kuech says. “And it allows me to be plugged in to what’s going on at a larger scale and bring that back to the college.”

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