With the chemical engineering major, the possibilities are endless.
Lauren Cho (B.S. '21)
Follow this link to a brief video of Lauren discussing her next steps!
Can you tell us a bit about your background? In which subjects did you excel in school? Where did your interest in STEM come from?
Well, I was born and raised in Maryland. I’m a first-generation college student, and I have always had a strong interest in science and math. I took several AP courses in high school, e.g., physics, mechanics, but STEM in general was always a part of my curriculum. In middle school, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I was always tinkering around the house, out of cardboard, hot glue, wood, and whatnot, always seeking to learn new things.
In my junior year of high school, I took AP chemistry, which totally changed my view of the subject and I did really well. My teacher was very supportive and encouraged me to tutor others in chemistry at my high school, which is where I developed my love of teaching and shaped my dream of becoming a professor in the chemical sciences.
Which provided segue into chemical engineering then?
Correct. My thought was "science is cool and I enjoy chemistry," and then my uncle, who is a civil engineer, suggested engineering, which would provide more of a hands-on approach.
Maryland Engineering was well known to me – lots of scholarships available and I’ve always enjoyed how vast and beautiful the campus was – so, yeah, I’d say it was a natural choice for me. College was a difficult adjustment, however – it took a while for me to acclimate and find a comfortable routine.
Did you conduct any research during your tenure? Any favorite courses or professors?
I was part of the Gemstone Honors Program, where I conducted interdisciplinary team-based research throughout my undergrad. We created a system which integrated an air-puff and neural network imaging system to better characterize intraocular pressure for glaucoma detection applications. During my senior year, I interned at the FDA through the JIFSAN (Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition) program. There, I focused on investigating pesticide detection through high-resolution liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HR-LCMS) under the guidance of my mentor, Dr. Jon Wong.
Last fall, I took heterogeneous catalysis with Dr. Dongxia Liu, which was by far my favorite course. I learned she’s very versatile and supportive of her students. Beyond the classroom, Dr. Liu gave me invaluable mentorship for applying to the NSF GRFP (a prestigious graduate student fellowship), and on research within the catalysis field, which potentially interests me for graduate school. Dr. Deborah Goldberg is also amazing – she is so supportive, so caring, and has the most effective teaching strategies – and I really look up to her as a role model in terms of a mentor and teacher figure. I enjoyed the many classes I took with her, as well as the invaluable support I received from her through the stressful times of graduate school applications. Aside from these professors, Dr. Akua Asa-Awuku, my academic advisor, gave me a lot of academic and life advice which kept me on track to graduate and pursue academia. Only because of her support from freshman year I fit two majors and other extra-curriculars in, graduated in four years, and I’m now starting a graduate program. Dr. Amy Karlsson was also extremely supportive in advising me about graduate programs. My favorite core ChBE class by far was Dr. Srinivasa Raghavan’s ChBE440: Chemical kinetics and reactor design – understanding the "hows" and "whys" of how everything was produced by a chemical reaction was interesting, and catalyst-embedded packed bed reactors (PBRs) fascinated me.
So, what was it like attending school during a pandemic?
I definitely had mixed emotions of attending school remotely. I’m an extrovert, so I really enjoy being around people, connecting, intermixing ideas, study groups, etc. Not having that was difficult, but the in-person graduation was really nice. On the other hand, it was nice being given additional time to complete projects and not having to wake up very early in the morning – I mean, you could wake up 5 minutes before! I also loved being able to cook warm, delicious meals while still listening to lectures.
When not in class, how did you spend your time?
I really like teaching and got addicted to working as an organic chemistry lab TA and ChBE UTF. I conducted several Guided Study Sessions (GSS) amongst my peers, which was always enjoyable. Teaching and mentoring students was my favorite collection of experiences in undergrad. I had UTFed for ChBE440 (kinetics), ChBE301 (thermo I), and ChBE426 (separations), and was a ChBE100 mentor for the major’s incoming freshmen and transfers last fall. I’ve always loved working with students whether it was through my teaching assistantships to leading student groups like ACS or facilitating icebreakers and games at Gems Camp!
Outside of academics, I enjoy biking, playing tennis, playing cello, spending time with friends, cooking, and knitting, too, which is calming. I try to stay well-rounded as it’s important to have extra-curricular activities for one’s enjoyment and mental wellbeing.
So, you’ve recently moved to Chicago and are starting at Northwestern shortly, correct? Any post-commencement plans?
Yes, I’m starting a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Northwestern University in September, after which, I’ll probably find a post-doc position. Eventually, I want to teach and hope to find a professorship somewhere. That said, you can make plans all day long, but they never quite turn out the way you think! No matter what, I want to help people and conduct meaningful and thrilling research. I value people from all backgrounds, especially those from disadvantaged communities, or first-gen students like me, and hope to inspire them in some way, to make a contribution, or several!
Engineering is a complex major - any advice for incoming students?
Absolutely - be patient with the early classes and stick with it. It all comes together later on, during senior year, with the design classes. Realize this is the creative process and there is a method to the madness – with the chemical engineering major, the possibilities are endless. It’s very technical, but very rewarding.
The sense of community can also be very rewarding – the professors were always so supportive – but you have to seek it out, be proactive. Like most everything else in life, you have to work for it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get support from your peers or instructors along the way! Find a study group, attend learning communities, attend UTF office hours when engineering courses get challenging, talk to upperclassmen for course advice and opportunities, talk to professors about their research, find yourself a mentor to be that voice of encouragement when you’re unmotivated, find classmates to rant with, find friends to laugh with, but of all things, find a community and a sense of belonging that will support you all the way through.