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CALC|UM Case Study: Can Students Think Like Industry Chemists?

How well can a team of graduate students immersed in university labs come up with a solution to an industrial problem? That question arises in light of a national concern that graduate programs do not provide sufficient preparation for careers after graduate school. Indeed, the transition from an academic research setting to an industrial setting can be challenging. Rarely are students exposed to considerations that are important in industry, such as scaling up for commercial production.

As part of the Department of Chemistry’s career preparation  program CALC|UM (Chemistry Aligned with Life and Career), an event last summer tried a novel approach to exposing graduate students to industry perspectives. Four Dow scientists came to the Ann Arbor campus to present a process chemistry problem that shut down a Dow plant. Then, without revealing how Dow actually solved the problem, the Dow scientists invited the students to form teams to propose viable solutions to the real-world issue. Successful proposals had to consider industrial constraints including cost, infrastructure, resources, and safety. 

Five interdisciplinary teams were formed consisting of graduate students from Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Macromolecular Science and Engineering, and Applied Physics. Over several weeks, the students developed solutions to propose. Then the Dow scientists returned to campus for a second session where the students presented their ideas. At the conclusion of the student proposals, the Dow group presented the solution that was ultimately implemented at their plant.

To their delight, the students discovered that their proposed solutions were directions that had actually been considered and, in some cases, actively pursued by Dow.

One student team included an analytical chemist, biochemist, chemical engineer, and organic chemist. “Because of this interdisciplinary environment, we generated some off-kilter and out-of-the-box ideas that actually turned out promising,” explains says Derick White, the organic chemist on the team and one of the student organizers of CALC|UM. “I was very surprised when Dow unveiled the solutions that they pursued because all the teams were right on track.”

For graduate students, completing their thesis research is just one component to pursuing successful careers in industrial settings. “I thought the Dow case study provided a unique opportunity to test the waters on the skills that I’ve been building in my education,” White adds. “Overall, it was a great experience and networking opportunity with Dow and colleagues alike.”

“The event gave me a clearer idea of what it would be like to be a process chemist, and of the unique and complex problems encountered when doing reactions on a massive scale,” says Yvonne DePorre, also a UM organic chemistry graduate student. A minor issue for a reaction in the lab could be a huge issue for an industrial process, so I can see why it’s so important to work in a multidisciplinary group.” 

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The Case Study was recently featured in C&EN News!