This fall, ChEnected is introducing readers to the recipients of AIChE’s 2022 Institute and Board of Directors’ Awards, AIChE’s highest honors. Recipients are nominated by the chemical engineering community and voted upon by the members of AIChE’s volunteer-led Awards Committee. (You can see more award winners in this series.)
First presented in 1935, the William H. Walker Award for Excellence in Contributions to Chemical Engineering Literature is named for William Hultz Walker (1969–1934), a founder of the chemical engineering discipline who established the School of Chemical Engineering Practice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916. The Walker Award is presented to a member of AIChE who has made outstanding contributions to the field’s literature. The award is sponsored by John Wiley & Sons.
The recipient of the 2022 William H. Walker Award is Eleftherios (Terry) Papoutsakis, the Unidel Eugene DuPont Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware. He is being honored for contributions to cell culture engineering, metabolic engineering, the genetics and genomics of Clostridia, and stem and T-cell engineering that provide the underpinnings of molecular-based biological engineering.
Dr. Papoutsakis and the other Institute and Board of Directors’ Award recipients will be honored at the 2022 AIChE Annual Meeting, November 13–18 in Phoenix, Arizona.
“How can I and inspire [students] to explore and innovate? That is the essence of mentorship for me.”
Throughout his career, Dr. Papoutsakis has made important contributions in both animal-cell biotechnology and microbial biotechnology. His work in animal-cell biotechnology includes seminal studies on mixing and agitation in cell-culture bioreactors, stem-cell bioengineering, and the use of extracellular vesicles for applications in cell and gene therapies. His contributions in microbial biotechnology include Clostridia genetics, microbial stress tolerance, and synthetic biology and metabolic engineering.
His recent focus has been on syntrophic clostridial co-cultures for CO2 fixation used for the sustainable manufacturing of chemicals and materials. Since beginning his teaching career at Rice University, then at Northwestern, and today at the University of Delaware, he has supervised more than 70 PhDs and generations of students, with his research funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy, and national laboratories.
The essence of discovery
Reflecting on his emerging interest in the molecular underpinnings of the world, Papoutsakis says that discovery and exploration have been the strongest drivers in his personal and professional life:
“I remember exploring nature since I was a child—discovering new and unusual plants, landscapes, and habitats. I saw beauty in form, color, and composition. . . beauty in how things were made. Then came my interest in math and physics... logic and logical deduction... and the understanding of the physical world, based on nature’s laws were all revelations.” He adds that, initially, “Chemistry was less fascinating, until late in my undergraduate education. Then came graduate school and the discovery of biochemistry and biology. That sealed my scientific and intellectual trajectory.”
For Papoutsakis, chemistry came alive through learning the chemistry of life: “Molecules suddenly had meaning and function—they self-organized to make complex biological structures. Biological complexity itself was a driver. There, I found what I was looking for: a field with infinite exploration depth—where I could try to understand and capture some of that complexity and use it to solve complex engineering problems.” He adds, “There was also discovery in each student I worked with: how do they learn and solve problems? What drives them? How can I support and inspire them to explore and innovate? That is the essence of mentorship for me.”
A member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), Papoutsakis was previous honored by AIChE with its Alpha Chi Sigma Award, and by the Society for Biological Engineering with the D. I. C. Wang Award and the James E. Bailey Award. He received his undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Athens and his MS and PhD from Purdue University.
To see more profiles of all the 2022 Institute and Board of Directors’ Award recipients, see the rest of this series.