CSE brings unforgettable experiences in leadership and DEI for senior Michelle Quan

Q&A with the chemical engineering and materials science senior and CSE Impact Award winner

April 27, 2023

When College of Science and Engineering senior Michelle Quan graduates this May, she’ll have a legacy to look back on. 

A run as president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student group, research on nanoparticle synthesis for creating more eco-friendly materials, and four years spent advocating for more diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) on campus. Plus, a 2022 U of M President’s Student Leadership and Service Award to commemorate it all. 

But instead of looking backward, Quan is very much looking forward—to a future where she’ll leverage her experiences in CSE and the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science to become a leader in academia.

Quan was the two-time recipient of the CEMS Legacy of Excellence Scholarship, and also received significant support from Clifford and Nancy Anderson Scholarship. In this Q&A, she discusses her interest in sustainability, her experiences contributing to DEI efforts in the college, and how she plans to give back to future generations as a faculty member one day.

Tell me a little bit about why you chose the University of Minnesota and CSE.

I did the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program (UMTYMP) on campus when I was younger, so I already had a lot of ties to the University. I also used to volunteer at the Minnesota Zoo and worked a lot with marine creatures, so the impact of plastic has always been really apparent to me, especially in water ecosystems. I knew going into college that I wanted to work on creating recyclable plastic or making plastics from bio-based materials. The U has a really good chemical engineering and materials science program and is well-known for polymers research, so it was kind of a no-brainer that it would be a really good choice for me.

What has been one of your favorite experiences here in CSE?

It's been really nice to see all the work that's been done in diversity and inclusion within my department and the college. After the murder of George Floyd, my department created a diversity and inclusion working group, and last year, the college started the annual CSE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership Showcase. I was very fortunate to be selected for the CSE Impact Award. That was a really big moment in my college career. I think it's really important that CSE recognizes the work that students are doing in DEI. Having that type of recognition empowers students to continue to do that work alongside all the other things.

What are your plans after graduation this May?

I hope to eventually become a faculty member, and maybe come back to teach at an institution like the U of M. I think it’s really important to diversify the people that become faculty members. My principal investigator is a woman, and that was really valuable for me to have someone who can empathize with what goes on when you are underrepresented in your field. Next school year, though, I’ll be at Stanford University pursuing my Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

How will your CSE experience help in your future career?

I've gotten such great support from people within the department and the college. In my position as an undergraduate representative in my department's DEI working group, I've been able to implement a lot of changes, like more flexible classwork deadlines. For me, because of the path I hope to take and become a faculty member, having some experience speaking to people at all different levels in academia has given me a lot more confidence and honed my communication skills. It’s professional development outside of just learning how to size a heat exchanger and the types of things that you learn in chemical engineering.

What advice do you have for future CSE students?

Don’t box yourself in. It’s very common for people to just focus on their studies, and obviously it’s very important to do well in your classes. But if you have outside passions that you'd like to incorporate into your college experience, you should make time for those things. I’m really grateful that I didn't just focus on my studies, and I was able to branch out and try to make a tangible impact here at the college, even if it's only for the four years I’m here.

Interview by Olivia Hultgren

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