Julie A. Champion, Georgia Tech: The Future of Chemical Engineering

As part of AIChE's 110th Year Celebration, this series provides perspectives on the future of chemical engineering from dozens of leaders in industry, academia, and at national laboratories.

We continue the series with Julie Champion, who is associate professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Tech. In 2008, she had earned her PhD at the Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, with Prof. Samir Mitragotri and was a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech with Prof. David A. Tirrell.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed Dr. Champion to learn her vision for the profession’s future. In today’s blog post, we contrast some of Champion’s comments from 2008 with her perspectives today.

Looking ahead 25 years, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

In 2008, Champion wrote:

The world faces serious challenges right now that must be addressed quickly — namely energy, food supply, and healthcare. The urgent nature of these challenges will drive change in the biotechnology sector over the next 25 years. Global inequities will create new market opportunities for chemical engineers to address critical issues in developing countries, such as drought, malaria, and water contamination.

However, the same technologies used to solve these problems in the West cannot be reused. Technological advances must be harnessed to make solutions simpler, not more complicated. Biotechnology companies will evolve their products in creative ways to meet the requirements of customers “off the grid.” 

The most successful chemical engineers will be those who are willing and brave enough to take risks, not with safety or the environment, but by taking on leadership roles even if their job title does not suggest it, and by challenging the status quo with new ideas, new questions, and new connections with other fields.

In 2018, Champion says:

Vaccines made independent of the cold chain, paper-based microfluidic diagnostics, and bacterial sensors of malnutrition are fantastic examples of chemical engineering and biotechnology research applied to meet challenges in the developing world over the last decade.

My expectations have lowered, however, on how long (if ever) it will take for these to be commercially available for real people, as the economic driving force is not as strong as that in the developed world for complex biotechnologies.

The approval of the first T-cell therapeutics, derived from a patient’s own cells, is a recent example and is a sign that biotechnology has significant opportunity to capitalize on technologies capable of scaling up cellular therapies to ensure quality and availability for a much larger number of patients.

Core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber tools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area?

In 2008, Champion wrote:

We have already seen molecular engineering and nanotechnology appear in biotechnology research in the laboratory. It is becoming obvious that control at these levels elicit new interactions with biological systems that are not possible with bulk materials of larger length scales.

A significant challenge faced by the biotech industry will be how to define these materials and establish their safety with respect to both human health and the environment for the FDA and EPA (and similar agencies worldwide).

There is still a great deal to be learned about the therapeutic and diagnostic potential of “nanomedicines” and other molecular tools. To realize this potential the industry will see significant push in research and academic partnerships in this area of biotechnology.

In 2018, Champion says:

These changes have brought forth a great variety of new nanomaterials to be applied in medicine. However, nanomedicines have had some disappointment, as almost all have failed to reach the clinic.

Going forward, nanomedicine will need to better integrate with biosystems modelling and data to better identify the specific patients, disease types, and states that will benefit from specific nanomedicines in the clinic.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

In 2008, Champion wrote:

In the U.S., the biotech industry will strengthen its ties with the traditional energy sector. There has been and will continue to be significant progress made in the efficiency of extracting energy and fuels from plants and microbes. 

However, integration between the biotech and energy sectors is necessary to expand current production and realistically bring biologically based energy and fuels to actual customers at substantial volumes.

In 2018, Champion says:

The biotech energy area has not grown as quickly, though it may have less to do with technology and more to do with availability of fossil fuels, politics, and other issues.

Very soon, large-scale and modular cellular manufacturing for cellular therapeutics will appear, adjacent to the biotech industry that creates proteins, fuels, and other molecules from living cells. Cells will go from being the producers to the products, initially for immunotherapies.

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future —what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

In 2008, Champion wrote:

What chemical engineers do is still a mystery to most people. Even in college, many undergraduates choose ChE because of its reputation as one of the most difficult and employable engineering disciplines without truly knowing what it is to be a chemical engineer. 

This will not be the case in 25 years because in the next few decades we will have opportunities to use our core skills to significantly change the current global food, energy, and health situations for the better. These issues are critical to all people, and chemical engineers will be the ones who engineer cellulases for biomass conversion to energy, design drug delivery systems that prevent antibiotic resistance, or identify strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emission, for example.

The ability to fill these roles in the very near future is dependent on education and collaboration. The challenge for educators is to prepare future chemical engineers for fields so diverse that it is impossible to cover all of them within a single reasonable curriculum.

Future ChE students will see more real-world guest lecturers, hands-on examples, and inter-departmental group projects to teach them that the core concepts of transport, kinetics, and thermodynamics can be applied to almost any problem, especially with the help of collaborators from other fields. They will use communication skills daily in class and will, therefore, be comfortable discussing their work appropriately with farmers, financiers, or physicists.

With the increased availability and necessity of multidisciplinary collaboration and internet technical resources, it is critical that high ethical standards be maintained. Their responsibilities to society will be instilled in ChE students from their first class and emphasized throughout their formal academic and informal training. The world has provided incredible challenges, and in the next 25 years chemical engineers will step up and be an integral part of the solutions.

In 2018, Champion says:

As I have been teaching future chemical engineers for the last nine years, I still think my original answer is true, but my perspective has changed. The most successful chemical engineers will be those who are willing and brave enough to take risks, not with safety or the environment, but by taking on leadership roles even if their job title does not suggest it, and by challenging the status quo with new ideas, new questions, and new connections with other fields.

It is not enough to produce students with good grades who can solve idealized problems if they do not reach their full potential in the face of real-world challenges. Rather, academic institutions need to insist, “How do we instill this behavior in our students: To take risks, to encourage failure and learning from failure, and to step up to lead?”


AIChE's 110 Year Celebration

Celebrate AIChE's 110-year anniversary. Attend this Annual Meeting session, focusing on the future of chemical engineering through the eyes of thought leaders from industry, academia, and national laboratories.

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