Undergrad research marks new path

Marks Rylee

Photo by Shivani Jinger

For Rylee Marks, an Honors College student who will earn her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering this year, the plan was always straightforward: finish college, enter industry.

“I thought, I’m going to spend four years getting my degree,” Marks said. “After four years, I’m going to industry, working in energy consulting.”

As a high school student, Marks excelled in chemistry and quickly embraced lab work, where she could put theory to practice. Gradually, she cultivated a passion for conducting experiments and research. During her senior year, she began learning about engineering and its array of career opportunities as she considered undergraduate degree options.

“Looking into what I wanted to pursue in college, I found out about chemical engineering,” Marks said. “It was everything I liked from chemistry, but applied in a much broader sense. I chose it while having interests in renewable energy and consulting as well as manufacturing.”

Soon, Marks determined where in addition to what she would study. Oregon State University’s College of Engineering stood out from other programs, due to its smaller class sizes and undergraduate research opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced campus operations during Marks’ first year. Still, she was determined to expand her research skills. In early 2021, she contacted Kelsey Stoerzinger, assistant professor of chemical engineering, to inquire about openings in her electrocatalysis-focused research group. Stoerzinger invited Marks to join her team. Six months later, Marks began the Pete and Rosalie Johnson Internship Program. That research experience has become the core of her honors thesis.

“For six months during COVID, I worked on electrochemistry-based outreach programs,” Marks said. “For my Johnson internship, I work with Quinn Carvalho, a Ph.D. candidate in our group. We do electrochemical nitrate reduction reactions, removing toxic chemicals from groundwater and producing ammonia to be used in fertilizer. It’s amazing to be part of this impactful work.”

Marks has also made an impact in the CBEE Club, Oregon State’s chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers . Members attend the national AIChE student conference annually with club advisor Skip Rochefort, associate professor of chemical engineering. At the 2022 conference in Phoenix, students presented their research in various competitions.

“This is the best undergraduate research in chemical engineering,” Marks said. “Getting to see people present it and to talk about it with each other was incredible.”

Under Stoerzinger’s mentorship, Marks presented her honors thesis research. She placed third in the AIChE National Student Technical Competition, becoming the first from Oregon State in over 20 years to place in that competition. She also co-authored a paper on the nitrate reduction work with Carvalho, Stoerzinger, and four other colleagues, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in August 2022.

That same summer, Marks served as an intern at Intel’s WATR Lab, where she chemically tested the water to be reused and recycled in the company’s manufacturing processes. Because the scope of this work intersects with environmental engineering, she developed a firsthand appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

“We made sure there’s no contaminants in the water,” Marks explained. “If clear, we’d push it ahead to be reused and recycled. There’s a chemical engineer, a civil engineer, and a mechanical engineer working on the team to accomplish the same goal.”

Collaborating with and learning from students and professionals of all disciplines has helped Marks realize how integral chemistry is to all aspects of engineering and beyond. From a career standpoint, she noted how chemical engineers may work in the environmental sector, help design semiconductors, or conduct research and test chemicals in the lab.

“Chemical engineering affects everything around us,” Marks said. “Everything at home bought from a store was likely made by a chemical engineer who helped design, create, or process it.”

With all this in mind, Marks’ plan to enter industry has changed in an unexpected way. After she presented in Phoenix, professors from several renowned institutions approached her, expressing admiration for her academic pursuits and encouraging her to apply to their doctoral programs.

“People started mentioning grad school, saying my research is perfect for it,” Marks said. “And I said, ‘No, thanks.’ But these past few months, I’ve realized I’ve been mentored by lots of fantastic professors, peers, and older students at Oregon State. They’ve all had an impact on my career. So, I’m now in the process of applying to grad school — a total turn!”

Marks is glad to contribute to the chemical engineering field through teaching and research, maintaining a love of lab work that began in high school.

“I’m hoping to apply for a Ph.D. program,” Marks said. “It could take years, but I aspire to be a professor and to have the same impact on people’s lives that my mentors have had on mine.”

March 22, 2023