ChBE Alumnus Profile: Jonathan Sindler

Class of: 2005 (B.S.)

jonathan sindler
Jonathan Sindler (B.S. '05)

After graduating from the University of Maryland, Jonathan Sindler earned a M.S. in Environmental Engineering from the University of California‚ Berkeley. Today, he channels his personal and professional passions for energy and the environment into the development of alternative fuel solutions made from waste.

We chatted with Jon to learn more about his experiences at the University of Maryland and in industry.

Why did you choose to major in chemical and biomolecular engineering?

Settling on ChemE was tough. My dad has been my main influence in life and he is a doctor. My mother is a nurse practitioner. I basically went through my childhood thinking that I was going to become a doctor. However, when I got to Maryland, there was no pre-med major and that forced me to be more decisive about my life. I thought about it a lot and decided on chemical engineering because I love chemistry and math, and because the chemical engineering job market is good and pays well.

What was the best thing about your UMD experience?

Getting to know myself better and realizing to that I love to study and learn.

What was your favorite ChBE class, and why?

I'm going to go with Heat and Mass Transfer with Dr. Richard Calabrese. I really love lectures where you are challenged to push yourself to keep up.

Speaking of challenging...What was your most challenging ChBE class, and what advice to you have for current students on getting through it?

Thermodynamics 1. Some of the concepts in thermodynamics are pretty handwavey. I am very detail-oriented and obsessed with understanding the material rather than memorizing. Some aspects of thermo make it difficult for conceptual understanding. My advice is to study hard, don't miss class, work in groups and go to your professor's office hours if you're confused.

Were you involved in research, internships, conferences, or other activities while a student?

Yes. First I worked in the Metabolic Engineering and Systems Biology Lab under Dr. Maria Klapa, evaluating the efficacy of norleucine as an internal standard in Aradopsis thaliana metabolic profiles. I also worked on optimizing the derivitization protocol and equipment operating conditions for GC-MS metabolic analysis of submerged Aradopsis thaliana plant cultures.

Later, I had a Chemical Engineering Work Study at the Bioprocess Scale-Up Facility, where I analyzed cell growth and glucose consumption for batch, fed-batch, and continuous-fed E. coli fermentations.

Where do you currently work? 

I am working at a six-person start-up called PK Clean. PK Clean uses a patented, proprietary catalyst to pyrolyze plastic waste into crude petroleum. The company has a lab operation in development at the University of Utah and a pilot plant in Pune, India. We are seeking seed funding and hope to have our tech optimized and ready to present to investors for Series A funding at the end of the year.

What led you to this position?

After graduating from Maryland, I worked a series of technical jobs that were boring and didn't encourage me to learn and apply myself. In 2010, I found myself working in medical devices, an industry outside of my academic background, in a position (validation) that didn't seem to be going anywhere.

I thought hard about what technical challenges the world would be faced with over the next 50 years and decided that the real engineering hurdles were in energy and water. I decided a degree in environmental engineering would put me in a good position to address these areas. 

After graduating from Berkeley with a Master's degree, I was not enthusiastic about going back to work for a big company. I felt pigeonholed after four years in the work force and didn't want that to happen again. I decided to pursue local start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

In my four years in San Francisco and Berkeley, I had made quite a few contacts and was somewhat tied into the area's unique start-up environment.  The summer after graduation, I accepted a fellowship with Lightspeed Ventures and began working for PK Clean.

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

Anyone who pursues chemical engineering and follows a chemical engineering path after graduation will easily find the technical teachings very valuable. UMCP's chemical and biomolecular engineering department has a lot of dedicated, smart teachers.

I think that the biggest benefit of attending UMCP was that it was a big school where you could pursue just about any field of study. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I started college. However, the wealth of classes and a practical mindset helped me settle on chemical engineering. From that point, I started a habit of constantly talking to the people around me, specifically teachers and people who had the information that I wanted. I am a people person and many engineers make the mistake of thinking that since their background is technical, they don't need to be proactive to get what they want out of life and a career. The professors in the ChemE department were always willing to meet with me to discuss life and the decisions a graduating senior faces. That positive reinforcement set me up to continue to always ask questions and seek the wisdom of others.

What advice do you have for students considering majoring in or having a career in ChBE, or for undergraduates considering applying to graduate school?  

Be practical. What would you be content with as a job? Do you care about what you have to do or will you just be happy working a job and living in between? Never stop planning but don't let it distract you from performing well in work and school. The sooner you start looking for internships, the easier it is. Do it as a freshman, focus on local opportunities, meet with the career center, find out if any UMCP alumni are at companies you are interested in and contact them, and talk to your professors.

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

I am active in the Clean Tech Open, Imagine H2O, and the SV Forum and I am trying to make a point to attend California and Maryland alumni association events. I am very passionate about waste re-use technology and alternative fuels. Outside of work, I'm a fitness nut and enjoy spending time with the people I care about.