Capping years of rising success, UMBC chemical engineering club shines as student conference hosts

Published: May 30, 2024

Multiple teams of students wearing lab coats and safety glasses stand around tables. On top of the tables are chemicals, beakers and other lab equipment.
Members of the UMBC ChemE Car team and other regional teams prepare their vehicles for the competition. (Marlayna Demond '11/UMBC)

On the first weekend of April, hundreds of chemical engineering students from across the Mid-Atlantic converged on the UMBC campus for two days of learning, networking, and friendly competition. They heard talks from academic and industry leaders, attended workshops and a career fair, competed in rounds of ChemE Jeopardy, mixed chemicals to power small cars along a track in the ChemE Car competition, and mingled over catered lunches, dinners, and cups of evening hot cocoa. 

The activities were all part of the 2024 Mid-Atlantic Student Regional Conference of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)—hosted by the UMBC student chapter of the national group. Around 400 people attended the event, an increase from last year’s conference at Virginia Tech. Organizing the logistics, recruiting speakers and sponsors, securing rooms, and ordering thousands of plates worth of food presented a formidable challenge—one that the UMBC students tackled with aplomb. 

“I am feeling fantastic after the conference,” says Pavan Umashankar ’25, chemical engineering and biochemistry and molecular biology, who served as the chair of the conference organizing committee. “I am super proud of everyone’s commitment and dedication to make it a resounding success.”

“Truly, I could gush about the UMBC conference planning team all day,” says Alyssa Block, the membership associate of ChemE student programs for AIChE. “These students really are the future leaders of their profession and of AIChE: engaged, excited, collaborative, supportive of each other, and willing to lend a hand.” 

A club on the upswing 

Hosting an AIChE regional conference for the first time at UMBC marked a milestone for a student club that has seen increasing levels of engagement and success in recent years. While many college clubs across the country are in decline post-Covid, UMBC’s AIChE student chapter is on a clear upward trajectory. The club sent its first team to compete in ChemE Jeopardy at the spring 2019 AIChE regional meeting. Just three years later, the UMBC team won the national ChemE Jeopardy competition. 

Neha Raikar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering (CBEE) and one of the advisors to the student AIChE chapter, remembers attending the 2019 meeting: “Back then, we wondered if we would ever be able to host a regional conference at UMBC,” she says. “We’ve achieved that goal.” 

It was especially remarkable, she adds, to see some members of UMBC’s first ChemE Jeopardy and ChemE car teams return to this year’s conference as industry representatives.

Strong attendance and smooth conference logistics weren’t the only successes of the weekend—UMBC also triumphed in the ChemE Jeopardy and ChemE car competitions

“Planning for the conference was already a significant undertaking, and on top of that, many of our students participated, and excelled, in the competitions,” says Raikar. “Their achievements not only showcased their individual capabilities but also the strength of our club as a whole, which is growing and thriving.”

A winning formula

AIChE chapter members and their advisors ascribe the club’s success to the hard work and dedication of the students coupled with the support of the CBEE department, college, and university. Thirteen CBEE students formed the conference planning committee, which met regularly to ensure all conference planning efforts were on track. An additional 37 students and 14 faculty and staff also volunteered their time—as check-in staff, poster and presentation judges, and more. About 10 UMBC alumni actively participated in the conference, and others contributed to fundraising efforts, helping the organizing committee secure sponsorships from notable companies such as AstraZeneca, ExxonMobil, Advanced Thermal Batteries, and Astek Diagnostics and from the chemical engineering department of Columbia University. 

An Dang ’24, chemical engineering, led the fundraising efforts. She gamely approached industry representatives at the UMBC career fair and made the pitch. “I’m not an extrovert, and being in these roles forced me to go out of my comfort zone,” she says.

“Securing sponsorships was vital for making the conference possible, and An did a remarkable job” says Mariajosé Castellanos, another CBEE faculty who advises the AIChE chapter. Castellanos also praised the management skills of conference planning committee chair Umashankar. “Despite his modesty, Pavan is a true mastermind in everything he does,” she says.

For their part, the students applauded the support of the CBEE department, especially the work of their two advisors, Raikar and Castellanos, and the event planning support of Andrea Miller, the CBEE graduate program coordinator. 

Large group of people, many wearing yellow AIChE shirts, gather on stage and pose for the camera.
UMBC AIChE chapter students and faculty advisors pose for a group photo after a successful conference. (Photo courtesy of Mariajosé Castellanos.)

The conference was both a marker of the club’s success and an opportunity for individual students to grow their skill sets.

“I have developed leadership and project management skills, which will be incredibly useful throughout my professional career,” says Umashankar. 

Ben Welling ’25, chemical engineering, the leader of the UMBC ChemE car team, believes his experience with the competition helped him land internships. “I talked about it extensively with employers. They like leadership experience and it shows you are willing to do more than is required.” 

Raikar sees a bright future for the student stars of this year’s conference and for the club as a whole. “I hope the conference will boost the club membership and participation of students in other AIChE activities,” she says. And, she adds, the conference shows that with support, “UMBC students can accomplish any task.”

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