Graduate Research Spotlight: Meet Tim Turner

Innovative and exciting research is being performed each and every day by graduate students across the globe in all walks of chemical engineering. This post is a part of the Graduate Research Spotlight Series, which seeks to highlight some of the research being performed by AIChE's graduate student members. If you know of an AIChE member who is currently performing outstanding graduate research and has recently published a first-author paper, please let us know at

Where are you from?

Urbana, IL

What university are you completing your graduate degree at?

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What field/program are you enrolled in?

Food Science

What type of degree are you getting?


Where did you receive your undergraduate degree?

Illinois State University

What was your undergraduate major?

Family and Consumer Sciences (Food/Nutrition/Dietetics)

How many years have you been a member of AIChE? *

Going on 2 years. 

In layman’s terms please describe your specific field and what impact it may have on society.

Biotechnology and metabolic engineering attempt to manipulate the natural biological functions of an organism to generate a useful outcome. In some cases, this means we are trying to produce hard-to-obtain fuels, chemicals, or pharmaceutical products from renewable crops by developing engineered microbes. Society may see benefits from this research, as we develop the mass-production of compounds to treat diseases or fuel our cars, that would otherwise be unattainable or rely on non-renewable sources, such as fossil fuels.

What is the title of your recently published research article?

Lactic acid production from cellobiose and xylose by engineered Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Describe the highlights of your recently published paper.

We have engineered the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (commonly used for producing beer and making bread) to produce lactic acid from two lignocellulosic sugars, xylose and cellobiose. These lignocellulosic sugars are abundant in agricultural waste products (corn stover) or grasses (miscanthus and switchgrass) and are not edible by humans. Lactic acid on the other hand is used for the production of polylactide (PLA), which is a renewable, biodegradable plastic used in many industries, including as a 3D printing feedstock. Traditionally, lactic acid is derived from edible sugars, such as glucose.

In our study, we have been able to efficiently produce lactic acid from non-edible lignocellulosic sugars as a first step towards the mass production of the renewable plastic PLA from renewable grass crops.

To learn more, see Tim's recently published article


What are your plans after completing your graduate degree?

I am seeking out a position as a postdoctoral researcher at a university or government lab. Specifically, I want to further develop my skills in metabolic engineering, parasitology, and brewing/fermentation technology.

What motivated you to pursue your graduate work?

Simply put, I really enjoy the scientific process and lab-based research. I enjoyed it as an undergraduate researcher and wanted to continue that experience as a graduate student.

What is your favorite moment in chemical engineering history?

There are quite a few I would consider my favorite... so I'll keep it simple and go back to the early 1990s, when James Bailey coined the term "metabolic engineering."

If you weren’t a ChE what would you most want to be?

A YouTube personality.

What is the most interesting place you have ever lived?

Honolulu, Hawai'i

What was best meal you ever ate?

Homemade lasagna which we layered at least a dozen habañeros and mixed hot sauce in with the pasta sauce.

How many ChEs does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Hopefully just one!

Do you have any advice for current or future graduate students reading ChEnected?

Make time every single day to take a short break. No matter how busy you are, sit somewhere away from your phone, tablet, computer, etc. and take five minutes to do nothing. Literally, just sit there and take a few deep breaths and relax. You're a graduate student and you will always be busy and always be stressed, but it's OK and even beneficial to take five minutes out of every day to just do nothing.

You can reach Tim through his LinkedIn profile.