Science - September 23, 2004

‘Molucular techniques are new to me’

The top student in chemical engineering in the US has been at the Laboratory for Microbiology for a month now. American Stephanie Freeman, a BSc student in chemical engineering from the University of Arizona (UA), heard the news of her award the day after she’d arrived in the Netherlands, in mid-August.

Freeman is in Wageningen on the recommendation of a professor at her home university, Dr Jim Fields, who also has worked here. ‘You have a good environmental technology programme.’ She is conducting microbiological research on samples of sludge she has taken from a bioreactor back home. ‘Molecular techniques are new to me. Here you focus on what’s going on in the reactor, on what bacteria do, whereas we used to look at what goes in and what comes out of the reactor.’

Shortly after her arrival in August she heard that she’d won the John J. McKetta undergraduate scholarship worth 5000 dollars. This is awarded by the professional body for her subject, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). To apply, Freeman had to submit a two-page essay outlining her career goals in the chemical engineering process industries, and letters of recommendation from her professors. ‘It was definitely a shock that I won,’ recalls Freeman. ‘But I have a history with this organisation. I don’t know why, but they seem to like me.’ She previously won a national paper competition set by the AIChE. What probably also contributed was that she was the vice-president of the UA chapter of AIChE last spring. She was also valedictorian of her high school graduating class
and was in the top one percent of her year.

Freeman also already has some research experience: ‘I have an undergraduate research position, for which you get paid by the hour. It’s a great opportunity to get research experience. You start working with a graduate student, but now my professor has even given me my own projects.’

She liked writing the essay for the AIChE because it stimulated her to think about what she wanted to do with her study after she has finished. ‘When you’re in school you’re normally too busy for this.’ Once she graduates in December 2005 she would like to continue with a master’s in chemical engineering and then do a PhD on environmental engineering. Where would you like to be in twenty years? ‘I want to have travelled a lot, got settled somewhere on the west coast with a degree or two, have worked a few years in industry and try to become a professor, doing research on bioremediation [removing or neutralising contaminants in polluted water or soil, ed.]. I think it’s kind of cool to develop something.’

In November Freeman will return to the States for a few days to collect her award at a symposium of the national organisation of engineers. She’ll probably spend her prize money on travelling in Europe and living expenses. In January she’ll return to Arizona. ‘Wageningen is a smaller city than I’m used to, but I like it here. I’ve got a bike so I’m good and I can pretend I’m Dutch.’/ YdH

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