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James F. Gilchrist on Being a Chemical Engineer

Professor and researcher James Gilchrist peers into the humidity-controlled instrumentation that supports his nanoscale research. (Image credit: Chris Larkin, Lehigh University)

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Name: James F. Gilchrist Age: 34 Institution: Lehigh University Field of Study: Chemical Engineering, specifically fluid mechanics and particle and multiphase transport.

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I've always loved mathematics, chemistry, and physics, but when I entered college it was the promise of finding a job and making money that drove me to chemical engineering; ironically, it wasn't until I was twenty-nine years old that I got my first ‘real' job. However, it was my first undergrad course on fluid mechanics that convinced me that I was not sacrificing my interests in choosing my discipline. I think I liked it so much because it allows you to visualize a physical representation of mathematics.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? I have two. First, "be grateful" — this may not help your science, but it will help you deal with the challenges you face thus making you a better scientist. Second, don't complain about being "very busy" – everyone is very busy.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I loved toys that allowed you to build different structures and devices (e.g., Capsela). I also loved taking apart household things and almost getting them back together again ...

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist/researcher? The exact moment you or one of your students makes a new discovery. Sometimes it is a "Eureka!" moment, and other times it makes you scratch your head and rethink what you thought to be true.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Creativity. This is assuming that all scientists are inquisitive and honest by nature.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Our research aims to broaden our fundamental understanding of particles in various flows, ranging across nanoparticle self-assembly, suspension, and granular flows (e.g., avalanches). The tough part in detecting HIV/AIDS and cancer in patients is sorting out the infected cells. Our expertise in how particles behave in flow help the materials engineers design platforms that incorporate flows that will ensure the proper cells are available for detection. If one of a million or a billion cells are infected, it is difficult to isolate those cells for detection. We are also working with other groups specifically to enhance BioMEMS capabilities and photonic applications.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? Somewhat obviously, my previous advisors had the greatest effect on me — my Ph.D. advisor, Julio Ottino at Northwestern, and Jennifer Lewis at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, my postdoctoral advisor. Working with each of them allowed me to see in different ways how creativity impacts research.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? People often ask me what I do during the summer. I do research! I am not sure why people think we scientists would abandon our passion for three months of the year.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Students, of course! I should probably include that my laptop comes out of the building every time there is a fire drill; everything I do is stored on my computer. When I was at Illinois, I used to sit in the basement and work on my laptop during tornado warnings. Pictures of my family would be next.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I listen to a wide variety of music, and often NPR, but Bob Marley is a staple of my collection.

This researcher is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering.