Rowan Global graduate student Sarah Salazar is completing a master’s degree in chemical engineering, working with others to challenge the future of plastic.
“Chemical engineering really is everything. Everything that we touch in our lives has been impacted in some way by a chemical engineer,” Sarah says. “What I love about it is that here we are taught to create in a safe way that is not only economical but with an economical and environmental conscious.”
This field combines math, science, chemistry, and physics to develop solutions to certain problems and optimize processes.
Sarah explains: “A common misconception about the field is that while a lot of us are chemist, even though we’re chemical engineering a lot of the time, people think that know all about chemistry. People think we work with all these colorful chemicals in the lab, but there is a lot more to that. So I would say that we’re taught more about mechanics more about physics than we are chemistry. And so a lot of our classes involve fluid mechanics and thermodynamics where we learn about energy balances. We look at temperature, pressure, energy, all of these other components involved, but a very small part of it is solely related to chemistry.”
Sarah started at Rowan earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering but was excited to continue her education and enrolled into a master’s program. A lot of students with shared interests also participate in the material science graduate program. She chose the master’s thesis track and works on research projects in the Tech Park.
The Tech Park is a collaborative environment to interact with other graduate students and ask questions relating to research. It is also a space to do research or settle in and focus on homework for courses.
When she first stepped foot into a chemical engineering class, one professor helped her connect the dots, which led to her graduate studies.
“Dr. [Joseph] Stanzione started the first class period by sharing all the different things that you can do with a chemical engineering major,” Sarah says. “And at that point, I still didn’t know what chemical engineering was or what I wanted to do with this degree once I was done, so it was helpful to see all the different professions and areas you could go into. He showed this list and I saw sustainability and material science and it caught my interest.”
Looking for more opportunities, Sarah reached out to Dr. Stanzione about the research group he mentioned in class and that was her entry to research labs.
“My advisor, Dr. Stanzione, is the one who has guided me to where I am now. He’s given many opportunities to learn new skill sets, both in my undergrad and in my graduate study. He has pushed me to present at so many conferences too. I have been to California, Virginia, Chicago, Atlanta, and at all these places we get the chance to present our work that we do here at the Tech Park. So I have always appreciated that about Dr. Stanzione – he’s given us so many opportunities to present our work and to network with potential employers, and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
After taking his class, she discovered her interest and decided to work beside graduate students, focusing on synthesizing bio-based polymers.
“The polymers we see every day are typically made from petroleum-based resources, and a lot of petroleum is a non-renewable resource, so it’s depleting rapidly. We want to get away from the use of petroleum and instead use renewable resources. So for example, there are interesting chemical structures inside trees and cashew nut shells. We ask ourselves, ‘Can we use these structures to kind of mimic what synthetic plastics do that we use today?’ My research specifically, focuses on epoxy resin synthesis and characterization,” Sarah explains.
She shares that if you’ve seen those videos of folks who build a wooden table online and finish it off by pouring a resin onto it, that’s exactly what she’s looking into. Epoxy resins are mainly used as coatings, and they protect the surface that’s underneath.
“My research surrounds synthesizing and characterizing bio-based epoxy resins. Traditional epoxy resins are usually made from BPA, which we know is harmful to our health – it’s an endocrine disruptor. So scientists have been trying to get away from the use of BPA. So that’s another plus to using bio-based resources to address this fact, as well,” Sarah says.
Sarah adds, “My main goal is that I want to incorporate these epoxy resins for high-performance applications. So rather than where it’s used to project tables, I would want our resin systems to be used in aerospace applications or automotive applications and construction. It has to be really durable, and it has to undergo high impact. Because of this, I do a lot of testing for their coating performance properties which is a big part of my work. We take the chemical structures and relate it to these properties and see how they connect!”
The future for Sarah is contributing to green chemistry and finding the solutions.
“My goal right now is really just to get a job in sustainability hopefully relating to what I do here now. Since I’ve done more and more performance testing, I’m more interested in going into coatings and adhesives for future jobs – and of course do this in a sustainable way.”
“At the Tech Park I really do enjoy what I do and am happy doing the work that I do here. I would like to continue that, and continue to learn more outside of Rowan University. Take what I’ve learned and then apply it to my job, and always find ways to learn more,” she says.
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