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Transforming Graduate Training and Building Research Capacity at KU

Friday, September 25, 2020

Making bold changes to graduate education is not easy. Integrating disciplines is even harder.

Yet, since today’s graduate students will become tomorrow’s innovators, universities must prepare them to address the many problems plaguing society. To do this effectively, new training models are needed that span traditional boundaries and broaden participation.

The University of Kansas aims to do just that with a prestigious National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT). Now in its second year, the “Internet of Catalysis” NRT program is working to transform graduate education in chemistry and engineering.

Kevin Leonard, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, leads the five-year project. He is also one of several faculty members mentoring the first cohort of seven trainees.

“Since January, we have been training these graduate students how to collaborate with each other,” said Leonard, “and the results so far are very exciting.” 

One of the NRT’s main goals is to foster research that is student-driven instead of faculty-driven. The hope is that this training approach will empower students to grow as leaders, while also helping to bridge the gap between data science and chemical catalysis—two fields that historically have had little in common. Achieving this goal will enhance students’ skills and grow research capacity at KU. The results could lead to major breakthroughs in urgent areas such as renewable energy and cleaner chemical processes.

To harness the power of data science, the NRT trainees learned Python, a programming language. Students say this was initially quite challenging, but many grew to like it.

NRT trainee Emily Mikeska struggled to code at first. Coding is not a common skill for chemistry majors. The NRT program convinced her of its value. She now writes code to automate time-consuming research tasks, like analyzing crystal structures. 

“I genuinely enjoy coding now. A survey of 500 crystal structures will never take me as long as it used to,” Mikeska said.

Since catalysis is a specialized field, no computer algorithms currently exist that can correctly identify its unique terminology. Therefore, trainees’ first had to create such an algorithm.

“This accomplishment significantly advances the project. It takes us closer toward developing an automated method to extract data from catalysis literature,” Leonard said.  

In addition to research, the NRT team has created a new course, revamped two others and developed multiple workshops. Dozens of students and postdoctoral researchers have benefited from these training sessions, which cover topics like career planning, teamwork, communication, resilience and unconscious biases.

The NRT program also seeks to make KU more welcoming and inclusive. The team employs evidence-based strategies for inclusion in all of its training activities. A new Inclusion Advisory Council is guiding NRT initiatives. NRT leaders are also working to recruit students who might feel excluded from science and engineering because of their race, ethnicity and gender.

“Embracing diversity and inclusion makes KU stronger and it fuels innovation,” Leonard said.

In addition to Leonard, mentors for current trainees include Distringuished Professor Bala Subramaniam in chemical engineering, Associate Professors James Blakemore and Marco Caricato in chemistry and four faculty from electrical engineering and computer science, Professor Michael Branicky, Professor Bo Luo, Associate Professor Fengjun Li, and Professor Andrew Williams, Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the School of Engineering. Claudia Bode coordinates NRT activities and mentors students as well. Two research centers support the project: the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) and the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center (ITTC).

Master’s and doctoral students in chemistry, chemical engineering and computer science can apply for the year-long inclusive training program, which starts in January 2021. The application deadline is November 1.  Learn more at

Related links:

2020 NRT Trainees

Giordano Castro, Master’s Student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Andrew Jenny, Doctoral Student, Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering
Joseph Karnes, Doctoral Student, Department of Chemistry
Emily Mikeska, Doctoral Student, Department of Chemistry
Isaac Moore, Doctoral Student, Department of Chemistry
Matthew Stalcup, Doctoral Student, Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering
Anoop Uchagawkar, Doctoral Student, Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering

--Story by Claudia Bode



CEBC Calendar

March 4, Thursday - Industry Colloquium 
9:00 a.m., via Zoom
Allyn Kaufmann, US Whitespace & Innovation Lead
"Serial Innovation in Consumer Heathcare - Intersection of Chemistry and the Consumer"

March 10, Wednesday - Mandatory Safety Meeting 
9:00 a.m., via Zoom
Mandatory for all CEBC researchers working at 1501 Wakarusa

March 25, Thursday - Industry Colloquium 
9:00 a.m., via Zoom
Nikola Juhasz, Global Technical Director, Sustainability
Sun Chemical Corporation, Carlstadt, NJ
"Sustainability of Packaging Industry"

April 1, Thursday - Industry Colloquium 
9:00 a.m., via Zoom
Sagar Sarsani, Project Leader
Sabic, Sugarland, TX
"Chemical Industry R&D Career Pathways"

April 12 & 13, Monday & Tuesday - Spring Advisory Boards Meeting
& Project Evaluations

1:00-3:00 p.m. each day, via Zoom
Click here to register

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