ChBE Alumnus Profile: Ryan Gill

Class of: 1997 (M.S.) 1999 (Ph.D.)
Advisor: Professor William Bentley

ryan gill
Ryan Gill (M.S. '97, Ph.D. '99)
Ryan Gill is the Managing Director of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels and an endowed Patten Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado. His honors and awards include a NSF CAREER Award (2005) and a NIH CAREER (K) Award (2005). In 2007, he was one of 12 recipients nationwide of the DuPont Young Professor Award, which will provide 3 years of funding to support his research.
We chatted with Ryan to learn more about his experiences at the University of Maryland, how he pursued a career in academia, and his current research.
What kind of research did you do while at UMD? 
Improving the production of pharmaceuticals using biotechnology. In particular, I worked on the use of a new genomics technology to enhance the ability of Escherichia coli, a microbe, to synthesize proteins with pharmaceutical properties.
Did you have a postdoctoral fellowship or a job in industry before becoming a professor? 
I had a postdoc. I worked with Professor Greg Stephanopoulos at MIT. We worked on the production of biopolymers using algae. Specifically, I developed new genomics tools to aid in the engineering of algae.
Did you always plan on becoming a professor? 
Yes, but I also had a desire to try my luck with startup companies. So, coming into graduate school I was not completely sure what I would do, but I had limited my options. Ultimately I have done both, and now having a startup company called OPXBio that is focused on biofuels and biorefining.
What's the best thing about being faculty?
The best part of being a faculty is the independence it provides.  The ability to study scientific questions that you find interesting, the freedom to build your own group/team/center/etc., and the opportunity to develop new courses are all examples of that independence.
You're a "Patten Assistant Professor" in your department. Could you tell us more about what that means?
The Pattens endowed the Department of Chemical Engineering [at the University of Colorado] close to a decade ago. Part of that endowment provides support for two junior faculty, who are called Patten Assistant Professors. This provides some discretionary funds to support new research directions.
Please tell us about your current research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
My group develops and applies new genomics and evolutionary tools for the purpose of engineering microbes for more efficient production of biofuels and biochemicals. The commercialization of biofuels and biochemical processes based on the use of renewable resources has been hampered by a lack of efficient and robust bioprocesses. We work to develop bioprocesses with a particular focus on developing improved microorganisms.
Why did you choose to major in and have a career in chemical and biomolecular engineering?
I chose chemical engineering because they did not offer a B.S. in environmental engineering at John Hopkins University and because I did not like my first experience in biomedical engineering. When I graduated [from JHU with a B.S. in chemical engineering] I worked for several years at an engineering and consulting firm in D.C. That experience furthered my interest in industrial applications.
I decided to go to graduate school because did not see interesting opportunities at B.S. level in the industry in which I was working‚ the Ph.D. level jobs looked much more interesting. Industry was a good fit for me, just not at the B.S. level.
When I went into graduate school, I debated whether I should work in the biotechnology or computer science areas within chemical engineering. After taking a course in each during my first semester, I decided that biotechnology was where my interests were. I began my research with Professor Bentley, and have not looked back since.
Why did you choose UMD and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering?
There were a few reasons. One was that my wife–girlfriend at the time–was accepted at John Hopkins for her Ph.D. work...Maryland was the best local choice for me, and I'd been given advice that [future advisor and former ChBE faculty member Professor] Bill Bentley would be a great person to work with. The department also had several [faculty working] in biotechnology and computer science at the time.
What advice do you have for students (undergraduate or graduate) considering a degree or career in ChBE?
For undergraduates, think hard about what you want to do, and don't stop thinking about it. Keep your grades up‚ low grades will limit your future opportunities. Finally, build other skills besides study skills, such as communication, leadership, and risk-taking. These are all extremely important to future success.
Graduate students should think about what they want to do and develop those other skills too. But in addition to that, challenge yourself! Your Ph.D. should be hard. If it's done right it should be the hardest you have ever worked.