There are so many things you’ll learn with this degree beyond the classroom.
Theodore "Lenny" Fobe (B.S. '18)
Can you tell us about your background? Where are you from originally? What attracted you to STEM subjects?
I'm from Montgomery County, Maryland. My dad is an attorney and my mother is a benefits counselor, although she just returned to school herself. I have a sister and we had an average childhood, but I was never 'pushed,' per se, to go into science. I took some AP classes in high school and had a knack for math and science, so my teachers encouraged me to focus on STEM subjects. My high school had a joint chemistry/biology program, which led to my original interest in bioengineering, but after taking the Introduction to Chemical Engineering course, I realized my interests leaned more towards chemical/chemistry rather than BioE.
Well, that answers why you chose to major in ChBE, but why study at UMD?
UMD was an easy choice for me. I applied to lots of other universities, but ultimately, I wanted to stay in state and close to home. I knew that UMD had one of the best engineering programs in the country, so I'd get an excellent education. It just made sense. There was really no other option for me.
Did you participate in any internships, or co-ops, while you were on campus? Research?
Yes, during my first summer, I started working in Professor Jeff Klauda's simulations lab all the way up through my senior year. In Jeff Klauda’s group I ran simulations of lipid bilayers to understand pore formation in the skin (stratum corneum). Later in my sophomore year, I worked with a mechanical engineering Professor Ryan Socal, conducting research on cell characterization on 3D printed cell arrays, which isn't all that computational, but provided a good research base. I also participated in the SURF (Summer Undergrad Research Fellowship) Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) during my junior and senior years, which led me to the University of Colorado, Boulder. My first NIST internship solidified my interest in research and got me looking for solutions to some really interesting questions. I wasn't the strongest coder going in, but my mentor at NIST, Damiaan Ricardi, took me under his wing, taught me the tools of the trade, and really caught me up to speed.
So, you’re currently a 3rd year graduate student at UC Boulder. What does your research entail?
My research is primarily computational. I'm modeling heteropolymers and how they fold, where I use a lot of the research skills I picked up in undergrad. Heteropolymers are very similar to proteins and show promise for making novel materials that share useful properties of proteins, but could be more chemically stable and more resilient to adverse environments.
I took Amy Karlsson's protein engineering class, which really introduced me to the idea of protein engineering - it was in her class where I learned about computational protein design and realized that that was where I wanted to focus my future research.\
My research aims to understand how non-biological heteropolymers fold. Like proteins, these heteropolymers can adopt very specific folds and their final folded structure is highly specialized to a specific function. These heteropolymers present the potential to design novel materials with similar properties as proteins, but that are more chemically resilient or have a more diverse set of chemistry compared to proteins.
In my research, we’re interested in coming up with general folding criteria for all types of heteropolymers. To this end, we model heteropolymers using non-specific CG potentials where changes in the force field parameters represent different types of heteropolymers. By exploring the parameter space of our CG model we can come up with CG properties that govern folding phenomena. Translating these CG properties to specific chemistries in real heteropolymers, we can inform experimentalists on their design choices for novel heteropolymers.
How did attending UMD prepare you for Ph.D. work/research?
The coursework in chemical engineering is intense, but obviously useful and provided me with a good, overall base. Working with Dr. Klauda gave me the hands-on experience I desperately needed, in addition to the encouragement and motivation, and the connections I made while at UMD were extremely valuable. Moreover, the scholarships I received from the department were instrumental and really helped to lighten my mental load, so to speak. Having that financial support reduced my stress level.
So, you received a few scholarships from the Department – which scholarships did you receive and how did they benefit you?
I routinely completed applications for a variety of scholarships each year, just because, you never know what kind of funding might be available unless you try. I always submitted the general engineering scholarship application and focused on help for research. Late in my sophomore year, money started coming in. I received the Mildred & Clark Steyer Scholarhip and the Donald Lee Huston Memorial Scholarship at over the course of my undergraduate degree, which were super helpful. It definitely knocked off a good chunk of what I had to pay, and helped me to complete my undergraduate degree by the spring of 2018. These scholarships really helped my family in a financially tough time since my mom was unemployed for a while when I was in college.
When I was awarded the Walter Schymik Undergraduate Research Scholarship from the Chemical Biomolecular Engineering Department, I was happy to be recognized for my research efforts. At this point I knew I was going to apply to graduate school, but it helped my confidence when filling out my applications.
I already had experience working/interning in Boulder (NIST Boulder) and knew there were a few research groups at CU Boulder that aligned with my interests.
Any memorable moments, or people, from UMD that stick out to you?
I'm really appreciative of Dr. [Jeffery] Klauda and how much I got to work with him. I worked for him as a TA in addition to doing research under him, so I really learned a lot from him. We also interacted a lot since he was my advisor on OXE honor's society. He was also the first person to encourage me to go to grad school. My 2nd and 3rd year were the most academically challenging, but I really enjoyed learning the fundamental sciences that chemical engineering is built on., so I kept with it, despite how challenging the curriculum is, and I'm glad I did!
So, what does the future hold for you?
I should have my Ph.D. in the next three years or so - the pandemic has pushed things back a bit. After I graduate, I plan to go into academia, possibly in Colorado, or maybe somewhere else - it will depend on who's hiring at the time, I guess! My first stop will be a postdoctoral position somewhere, which will give me more time to publish and establish myself. I'm also looking into research labs and industry, but those are back-ups, more or less. I like the University environment and can see myself staying in it for the long-haul.
Do you have any advice for current and incoming students?
Absolutely. Be sure to build relationships with your fellow classmates and professors - it's vital to have a strong academic network. I did well because I had a good network of people whom I could not only study with, but have fun with, too. I got involved with Tau Beta Pi, worked as a teaching assistant, hung out in the AiCHE lounge a lot, and conducted internships over the summers. The workload is intense, so it's important to find a support system of friends and mentors who care about your success and mental well-being.
Remember, it’s okay to fail - that's also a part of the learning process. There are so many things you’ll learn with this degree beyond the classroom. Time management was something I struggled with in ungrad and it’s something I learned from.
Also don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. I personally asked a lot of questions, almost an excessive amount of questions, but it was because I was genuinely curious about the subject matter. When I was a TA for students, the ones who constantly asked questions trying to better understand and digest the material were the ones who fully grasped the concepts.