The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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AIChE President Works to Institutionalize Brainstorming

One of the many passions of senior chemical engineering major Lucas Blauch – who is an accomplished guitarist, band leader, and certified Little League umpire from Harvard, Massachusetts – is making certain that the UMass Amherst chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) fulfills the professional needs of the students in his department. “What we’re trying to do this year is bring the entire chemical engineering group on campus together, especially the underclassmen, to educate them about the many opportunities for professional chemical engineers,” explains Blauch, who is president of the UMass AIChE chapter.

“We’re trying to stage a lot of events to stimulate intellectual conversation so our students are prepared to graduate, continue learning, and have a good career.”

Blauch is calling these events “brainstorming sessions,” in which small groups of students come together like weather fronts so their brain waves can create a perfect storm of professional opportunities for all the AIChE members.  

“We’ll have brainstorming sessions on the pharmaceutical industry, alternative energy, nanomaterials, and other chemical engineering fields,” Blauch says. “AIChE chapter members will run some of them, but we’ll also bring in campus professors and people from industry.”

From his own experience, Blauch advises incoming first-year students to join AIChE because networking is so important for their whole future.

“When you first arrive,” he observes, “you really have no idea what you really want to do as a professional. So it’s really important to interact with older students who have done internships, undergraduate research projects, and other experiences and talk to them about what areas they’ve worked in and how they got those opportunities. So networking in AIChE will help you focus on what you want to do and target the activities that will get you there. That’s one of the main things we’re trying to help our members do.”

Blauch bases his advice on his own hard-earned experience getting internships and professional connections. “If you don’t start networking until senior year, and you don’t know anybody, it’s a lot harder to find a job. So start as soon as you get here. For instance, you really have to know somebody to get a good internship. AIChE will help you build that network.”

Blauch learned this lesson the hard way! When he applied for his 2013 internship at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the company was flooded with 5,000 applicants for 50 positions. He believes the main reason he got one of the 50 coveted positions was because he “knew someone there.” But that’s not strictly true. Yes, he had an acquaintance at Vertex, but he also had the wisdom and foresight to set up an appointment long before he ever applied for the internship and made sure he was known and remembered.

“The year before I applied,” recalls Blauch, “I went over and met with the head of a large research team and some of his employees and let them know who I was. I spent about four hours there. They even told me what courses I needed to take to prepare me to work in their area. That’s the type of thing you have to do.”

Just as importantly, Blauch made sure he did a good job after he nailed his internship. At Vertex Blauch worked with the Material Discovery and Characterization Department, where he served on an engineering team of biochemists and computational scientists to develop a tool to help better measure the solubility of drug compounds, which is a very important characteristic because it determines the availability of the drug in your body and whether you can absorb it or not.

During the busy summer of 2013, his team first determined the solubility energies of drug compounds using standard HPLC methods before developing an innovative method of measuring drug solubility energies, which is faster than the HPLC method and potentially requires less material, based on existing ultraviolet-based technologies. Blauch also made progress towards automation of the process using the Python coding language and designed models of the system to help optimize the kinetics. The company plans to continue developing this tool in the future.

One key benefit of Blauch’s internship is that it helped him target what he would like to specialize in as a graduate student. He also plans to put his own internship experience to work by leading an AIChE chapter brainstorming group.

“For me,” he says, “I’m really interested in pharmaceutical drug design and drug delivery systems,  so maybe my group could look at that and talk about the different problems we can solve in the pharmaceutical industry and medicine in general. In my case, this type of event will help prepare me for grad school, and what I might study. I want to answer some great societal need, rather than just stumble into some random area of chemical engineering.”

Blauch notes that internships show you two key things about your future: what you want to do, and what you don’t want to do. It’s all part of the intellectual process of designing your future. “I don’t think anybody really knows what they want to specialize in,” Blauch says, “unless they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it.”

In other words, the key to your future as any kind of engineer is brainstorming. And Blauch is seeing to it that his AIChE chapter becomes a sensitive scientific instrument for monitoring, recording, and analyzing all those brainstorms. (September 2013)

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