Dr. Christy Wheeler West
How did you get interested in science?
When I first started learning any chemistry, so probably junior high school. Before then I would have said my favorite subject was math, not science. When the focus shifted from life sciences that you do more in the elementary grades to looking at physical sciences, then it became really interesting to me. And the more I knew about chemistry, the more I wanted to know. In chemical engineering, what we do is take those molecular level understandings that we get from chemistry and apply them to affect processes on a macroscopic scale...knowing those connections is just really fascinating. I did have a really good chemistry teacher in high school, and that definitely makes a big difference. He was a retired chemical engineer actually, so he certainly encouraged me to go in that direction.
What drew you to becoming a PhD?
That was something that growing up I would never have considered whatsoever...it was just outside of my scope of the understanding of the world. I would say probably within a couple of months of being on a college campus, I started to feel that that was the arena where I wanted to spend my life. The academic atmosphere was something that I really thrived on.
What type of research are you doing?
I study the field of catalysis, and the application of the work I am doing is hydrogen generation, whether it be from fossil fuels or from biofuels. What I do is make catalysts for chemical reactions to take place on. Most specifically, I am working on processes to make catalysts where you need platinum or gold to make the reaction go, but those are very expensive and the cost can prohibit the process from ever being implemented. We are working on making those pieces of metal as tiny as possible, so that you are using them the most efficiently to keep the reaction going. The ultimate application would be for hydrogen generation to use in fuel cells. The processes that exist for that now, that are used in industry, are not applicable for small scale, mobile instrumentation. Our catalysts would be used to make hydrogen at the locale where it’s needed to then feed into a fuel cell. A primary drawback on using hydrogen fuel cells is that we don’t have ways to provide hydrogen broadly to use in the fuel cells. Even if the cells work very well, if you don’t have hydrogen available then you can’t run the fuel cell. What we are working on is a means of making hydrogen efficiently. The real application would be, let’s say you can use a liquid fuel, and then you’ve got a system that can take that fuel, run a chemical reaction with it and the product is hydrogen that can be fed into the fuel cell. This could operate much more efficiently than a combustion engine because so much of the energy there is just wasted in heat.
What is your biggest accomplishment as an educator?
One of the greatest things, in an academic position, is the ability to combine the research with the teaching. In my lab right now, I have three graduate students and four undergraduate students that work with me...you’ve got to be responsible for having something for them to do every day. A lot of the fun is helping them to get the point of the research, finding out what their goals are, and helping them to achieve them. I take a lot of pride in finding good students and trying to encourage them to go beyond the undergraduate degree and pursue research, pursue a graduate degree. I think that for a lot of our students, like me, that was not on their horizon at all when they came to college. It’s not something that many in our student body would ever have considered. So I enjoy finding those students with exceptional abilities and encouraging them to pursue their education even further. I am especially always on the lookout for young women to push in that direction. In my group right now, I have two women, one graduate student and one undergraduate student. It is fulfilling...finding students that you’ve seen in the classroom to have excellent talent and bringing them into the laboratory to get them interested in a project. And then to see them coming up with ideas, and being able to understand what they’re doing outside of the classroom and applying that knowledge to the research...having the multiple levels of students working on projects and seeing how the research is not just about the research, but it’s also about their learning...it’s that combination of learning and research.
What advice do you have for young, female researchers?
I would say to aim high and work as hard as you can to reach those goals, but to always be aware of finding balance in your life. That can be a real challenge.
What do you value most about being an educator and researcher?
I really do love what I do. I love working with the students, especially in the context of the science...there’s that combination of the relationships, they are professional relationships, but they are personal relationships as well. That’s really fulfilling, getting to know the students, and knowing that while they are accomplishing things for you in the laboratory, you are also making an investment in their lives.