Undergrad Spotlight: Samantha Mendez

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

For someone about to graduate with an engineering degree, SEFS senior Samantha Mendez got hooked on her program through a surprisingly mundane product: a popcorn bag.

Sam grew up in Sacramento, Calif., until she was 13, when her family moved to Spokane, Wash. That’s where she attended part of middle and high school, and it’s also where she met Tom Wolford, executive director of the Washington Pulp and Paper Foundation (WPPF) at the time.

Tom was giving an info session on the Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) program at SEFS, and one of his demonstrations—involving that popcorn bag—struck Sam immediately. Tom spoke about how something as ordinary and overlooked as that bag was the product of a lot of people spending a great deal of time making it perfect. Sam liked the buzz about scholarships and internships and job opportunities, too, but she found the popcorn story particularly entrancing. “That was my first introduction to the industry, and I really liked it,” she says. “It was a turning point for me.”

Sam and her mom at the annual WPPF luncheon, where she was honored with the UW TAPPI Award.

Sam with her mom at the annual WPPF luncheon, where she was honored with the UW TAPPI Award.

Sam graduated high school in the spring of 2011 and enrolled at the University of Washington the next fall. The summer after her freshman year, she decided to take some classes at a community college back in Spokane. She wanted to catch up on a few prerequisites—including linear algebra, differential equations and organic chemistry—and she ended up extending at Spokane Falls Community College for the whole next year before returning to SEFS in 2013.

As soon as Sam settled into the BSE program, everything clicked. She felt at home with the small class sizes and close contact with professors, and she loved knowing all of her classmates by name. She got involved in the UW student chapter of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI), including attending the 2015 TAPPI Student Summit in Savannah, Ga., and serving as chapter president this past year. She spent countless hours working with the paper machine in Bloedel Hall, attended PaperCon this past May in Cincinnati, Ohio, and also gained tremendous hands-on experience through several internships.

Her first was a three-month stint with the Ponderay Newsprint Company just north of Spokane in the small town of Usk, Wash. Sam worked as an engineering intern and got to assist with a range of projects, from statistical analysis and validation of testing equipment, to helping reallocate jobs for the workers. Her schedule involved four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday, while she stayed at her aunt and uncle’s place along the Pend Oreille River. She’d come home after work, go for a run and then jump in the river to cool off. Then on Fridays, she’d head to her parents’ home in Spokane and work about 20 more hours over the weekend at an orchard. “It was really fun, and I learned a lot,” she says.

Sam, at work here in the paper lab, cites the small class sizes and accessibility of professors as huge reasons for her success. “Renata [Bura] is such a mom,” she says. “She’s fantastic.”

Sam, at work here in the paper lab, cites the small class sizes and accessibility of professors as huge reasons for her success. “Renata [Bura] is such a mom,” she says. “She’s fantastic.”

The next summer, she started what would become a 15-month internship with NORPAC in Longview, Wash. Working about 50 hours a week, Sam spent the first nine months on the paper machines, and then six months in the pulp mill.

Now, in a week she will head to Ashdown, Ark., for her third and final internship—this time with Domtar as a process engineering intern. WPPF had invited Domtar to campus earlier this year for an info session, and Sam scored two interviews and then a job offer in the same day.

She thoroughly enjoyed everyone she met with the company, and she’s looking forward to her first experience in the South. She’s also keen to work for a company that’s launching a new fluff pulp machine (used primarily for diapers). “It’s a rare opportunity to get to start up a new machine,” she says. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”

Perhaps the best part about this internship—like the two before it—is that it is fully paid. In fact, between her internships, the Del Rio Environmental Studies Scholarship she won her freshman year, and other WPPF support, Sam has been able to pay for most of her education. That’s a fairly remarkable achievement in today’s college environment, and Sam will head into her Domtar internship for what is essentially an extended interview process, with the potential to stay on permanently.

Before she leaves SEFS for good, though, Sam has one course to complete this fall with Professor Rick Gustafson. But first, she will be walking with the 17 members of her class at this Friday’s graduation as a worthy send-off for so many years of studying and working so closely together. “It’s such a great group of students,” she says, “and I’m proud and excited to be walking with them.”

Photos © SEFS.

Sam (back middle) and some of her BSE classmates.

Sam (back left) and some of her BSE classmates at the WPPF banquet on May 26.

 

New Faculty Intro: Anthony Dichiara

This fall, we were very excited to welcome Professor Anthony Dichiara as a new faculty member with our Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) program. Dichiara joins us after two years with the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., where he had been working as a postdoc with Professor Reginald Rogers. He brings an extensive background in materials science and engineering, and his research here will focus on the synthesis of carbon-based nanomaterials from biomass—with applications in multifunctional composites and environmental remediation, including the development of innovative ways to improve the sustainability of the biorefinery process.

“I’ve always been interested in nanomaterials,” says Dichiara, who grew up near Fontainebleau, France, about an hour outside of Paris. “From a very early age, you have those people who are interested in space and everything that’s huge. On the reverse end, I was always into everything that’s small. You look at planets, I look at atoms.”

Dichiara and his wife Emma are living in Bellevue, and they have a little boy, Ayden, who’s 16 months old.

Dichiara and his wife Emma are living in Bellevue with son Ayden, who is 16 months old.

Dichiara earned his bachelor’s and master’s in materials science and engineering, as well as a master’s in optics and nanotechnology, from the University of Technology in Troyes, France. He then earned his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from École Centrale Paris in 2012.

As part of his master’s double degree program, Dichiara spent about a year on a fellowship doing research in optical applications of nanomaterials in Hsinchu, the Silicon Valley of Taiwan. It was a defining experience personally and professionally, he says, as he met his future wife Emma there and sharpened his career outlook. “When I was doing my research in Taiwan, that’s when I realized I wanted to work with nanomaterials for my career,” he says. “That’s where I decided I wanted to go into academia and have more freedom with my research.”

Dichiara’s research initially focused on synthesizing nanomaterials, which are comprised of incredibly tiny nanoparticles and have broad uses in industries from healthcare to electronics and aerospace. His pioneering work on hybrid structures contributed to record performances in multifunctional polymer composites and water purification.

His overall goals haven’t changed, he says, but at SEFS he’s shifting to a biomass perspective and no longer using synthetic materials. He’ll be starting from nature, trying to create carbon-based nanomaterials that mimic the natural world—and that have powerful applications in the production of biofuels and other bioproducts.

Working with his new BSE colleagues, he’s already collaborating on a project to increase the efficiency of water treatment at biorefineries. That’s one of the main costs of producing biofuels, and Dichiara is looking to improve methods of cleaning toxic pollutants from the water to make the biorefinery process more cost-effective and sustainable. A related project involves working with biomass that comes from waste management, and trying to transform those materials into high-value products to treat water at a biorefinery. It’s using waste from one industry to solve the challenges of another. The result would be a synergistic, highly sustainable waste management system that brings us closer to the long-term goal of a biorefinery that create zero emissions and zero waste.

As he jumps into these projects, Dichiara has been getting settled in his office in Bloedel 288, and his lab refurbishment should be complete by the end of November. He’s hoping to start advertising for grad students this spring, as well, and he already started teaching this quarter with BSE 248: Paper Properties. “It’s pretty exciting to meet the students from UW,” he says. “They are really bright and dynamic.”

It’s wonderful to have Dichiara’s energy and expertise at SEFS, and we hope you’ll join us in welcoming him to our community!

Photo © Anthony Dichiara.

BSE Students Participate in Women in Science and Engineering Conference

On Saturday, February 28, Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) students Kaila Turner (below left) and Anna Song participated in the 24th annual Women in Science & Engineering Conference. Hosted by the UW College of Engineering at the Husky Union Building, the day-long event celebrated women in engineering fields and careers, and Kaila and Anna—sporting sharp BSE tees—represented our school enthusiastically!

Nice work!

Kaila Turner and Anna Song

Student Panel Touts BSE Program

Every fall, students interested in the Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) program sign up for a seminar (BSE 150) to give them an overview of the degree. Led by Professor Rick Gustafson, the course provides current and prospective BSE students with an introduction to the science and technology of bioresources, and throughout the quarter various faculty, advisors and guest lecturers cover different dimensions of the program.

The class is generally a mixture of freshman and transfer students, and this past Tuesday, December 3, they got to hear from a panel of six current students who’ve already invested several years in the program.

BSE PanelThe students on the panel—Edward Berg, Ryan Binder, Breanna Huschka, Seth Jorgensen, Andre Smith and Monet Springmeyer—answered questions and talked about their experiences, ranging from the tremendous paid internship opportunities (getting recruited, traveling to positions in other states, hands-on training); setting up study groups and managing the course load; preparing for interviews; whether to opt for minors or a double major; considerations for grad school; and generally how to succeed in the major.

Even as the panel cautioned students to be prepared for some tough courses and serious studying ahead, the biggest takeaway was clear: BSE is worth the effort, as most of the students on the panel already have full-time job offers waiting for them after graduation!

Photo © SEFS.