The chemical and biological engineering graduate program: Ongoing advancements in education and research

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

Graduate students have played a crucial role in making the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering one of the strongest and most enduring programs in the field. CBE grad students are integral to research, of course, but also to mentoring the department’s undergraduates. The department is ensuring that grad students will get an even stronger start in the future, thanks to an effort to establish a $24 million endowment for graduate support. (Click here to make a gift in support this effort.)

The endowment will fund 20 new fellowships for graduate students, providing support that otherwise would come from research grants or the students themselves. It also will help new grad students get more out of the first, pre-research year of their programs, says Milton J. and A. Maude Shoemaker and Beckwith-Bascom Professor and Chair Thomas Kuech. Ideally, the students should spend that year focusing on coursework—and not on the pressures of getting started with a research group in the department.
“The fellowships provide more intangible benefits, like giving students more breathing room to find a good research group, and allowing faculty more time to find students who are a good fit for their groups,” Kuech says. “If we look at what is needed to remain competitive and make the hard-won research dollars go further, it’s this.”

Kaitlin Dunn

Kaitlin Dunn (photo: Renee Meiller)

Kaitlin Dunn, a PhD student working on stem-cell projects in Shoemaker Professor Sean Palecek’s research group, says the process allows the graduate students and faculty time to get to know each other and find the right fit. “Each lab has its own little culture, and that’s something you can’t see when applying from hundreds of miles away,” says Dunn, who came to UW-Madison from the University of Texas at Austin.

The selection process compels new grad students to take the initiative in meeting faculty and learning about their research projects, Dunn says. That extra effort helps grad students develop a stronger sense of what they’d like to accomplish. “It’s definitely a motivator,” She says. “There’s no ‘what if’ for me—it’s ‘this is where I belong.’”

Dunn and her fellow students are supported in this ‘matching’ process through the generosity of past alumni, such as Walter B. Schulte, as well as some of the department’s existing named fellowships.

In the long run, Kuech says, the fellowships will build on CBE’s legacy of attracting excellent grad students, and may even help to grow the department’s graduate program. In turn, maintaining the high caliber of the department’s graduate students puts UW-Madison at an advantage for recruiting more top-tier faculty. It’s equally important, Kuech says, to maintain a well-rounded vision of what it means to be a College of Engineering grad student.

“The college can’t run an undergraduate program without grad students, and grad students are highly integrated into the whole educational endeavor and play an important role in mentoring undergraduates,” Kuech says. “All of our grad students have to be a teaching assistant for a minimum of two semesters, in order to both sharpen their own basic knowledge and to allow them to develop as individuals. Communicating science and technology is an increasingly important part of their job.”

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