ChBE Alumnus Profile: Quynh Nguyen

Class of: 2003 (Ph.D.)
Advisor: Professor Sheryl Ehrman

While a graduate student at the Clark School, Quynh Nguyen invented the name of the lab he worked in‚ P2OWDER, the Pursuing Particulate Opportunities with Dedicated Engineering Research Group, directed by his advisor, Associate Professor Sheryl Ehrman. He also won a GSG Excellence in Teaching Award for his work as a teaching assistant in Professor Richard V. Calabrese'sTransport Processes I/II courses.

Since earning his doctorate, he has worked for the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). We chatted with Quynh to learn more about his experiences at the University of Maryland and his current work.

What kind of research did you do while you were at UMD? 

What [my lab group] did was a hybrid gas particle conversion and chemical vapor deposition process that could make thin porous films. Some of the applications were for catalysts or coatings–we were depositing platinum particles onto an alumina substrate.  It was also a new way of making things in a cooler environment than chemical vapor deposition, which is used to make computer chips and things like that. It was another means of production.

Where do you currently work, and what you are doing now?

I'm a Division Technical Assistant at the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The important thing I want to say about that is that the NRC is not pro- or anti-nuclear. We are a regulatory body. Our goal, our mission statement, says that we try to protect the safety of the public and the environment. In my current position I take care of the everyday operations of the Division of Engineering and the Office of Research, like the budget and a lot of the operational things that happen every day, and from a technical standpoint I'm well-versed in what the division does so I can explain it to the public or other divisions. I also work on NUREG, which is one of our publications, and the applications for digital instrumentation and control.

What led you to this position?

[While working in the P2OWDER lab] one of my students was a summer hire or co-op at the NRC, and she explained to me that they had this Nuclear Safety Professional Development Program. Back then it was called the Intern Program. I think there are thousands of applicants and they pick about 30 new hires a year for it. It's a program were you rotate for 2 years through various jobs and see what you like. It's their development program for the fast track. At the end of my 2 years I was on the path to my current position. I've been promoted about 4 times–they've been good to me!

Has your experience at UMD influenced or aided what you do now?

Absolutely. Well, I guess any good doctoral student will say that the Ph.D. is a journey, not your final goal. You're trained to think quickly and absorb information effectively. The NRC is ranked the #1 Federal place to work. One of the things that's cool [about it] is that there are a lot of different jobs in the agency and they encourage you to try new things. For instance, I'm working on a project about digital instrumentation and control–that's more electrical engineering, but I picked up a lot of things in [my] Process Control [class at UMD] that enabled me to follow and ask the right questions, review and evaluate the project. It's a lot about applying your engineering knowledge to a variety of problems.

Why did you choose UMD and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering?

Originally I was at Penn State and I guess things weren't going the way I wanted them to happen. Maryland was one of the schools I put in for transfer to. What happened is, I heard Dr. Ehrman give her talk about how she was recruiting and what she was doing. I thought that was the most interesting job, to start a brand new lab–basically, we built the lab together, you know, from the ground up, and that's an opportunity you can't pass up! I was thinking about potentially starting up a technology company, so I think it was a good fit for both of us.

What was the best thing about your UMD experience?

I think what I liked about Maryland was that it was a very diverse university. And we had the basketball team that won [the NCAA title] in 2002 when I was there! But I'll say from a professional standpoint that building a lab from scratch is one of those things that I think I'll always remember, and Dr. Ehrman was very big into conferences and things like that. She really has a strong international bent, and I'm appreciative of that, because she let me go on foreign travel.

While I was at Maryland, I was also in a movie that was on the Learning Channel called "Navy Seals: The Untold Stories." This sounds strange, but I got an e-mail [soliciting actors], and they said to send a head shot and a resume. I sent my graduate skills resume, and they said "Come on down." It was in Southern Virginia. I told Dr. Ehrman that research was going to have to wait for a week because I was going to be in a movie!

What advice do you have for undergraduates considering graduate studies in ChBE?

I would say that from a dollar standpoint, a master's degree is probably the biggest payoff for time spent. But I think what it really comes down to is that if you want to do cutting edge research, you gotta have a passion for it. It's not about the money, it's not about other reasons—it's because you enjoy doing it, and I think if you do what you enjoy you're going to do well.

What advice do you have for current graduate students in ChBE who are working on their M.S. or Ph.D.?

Keep your advisor happy!

I guess the thing that I want to say is, it's true—the hardest part is getting into a graduate program and from there it's basically what you make of it. You can just do research and try to get by, but I think when you're there it's a unique opportunity. When you're going for a doctoral degree, you're discovering something new, so you need to come up with what you're work is going to be. I think if you don't push yourself to a point where you want to quit, then you're not trying hard enough.

Are you involved in any other interesting activities, either personal or related to engineering?

Right now I help mentor college and high school students in a program called Asian-American Success. I get to apply my technical skills to help explain things to them, and mentor them to contribute to society and find things that they want to do.