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New Department Hires: A Plan for the Future

In 2011 University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., introduced “Advancing Our Vision,” a long-term project whereby previously budgeted items would be reviewed and potentially redirected to meet the University’s most strategic needs. Each “reallocation of resources” since that time has been carefully selected to help build upon Notre Dame’s role as a distinctively Catholic university, its advancements in research and scholarship, and its longstanding excellence in undergraduate education.

As each college, institute, center, and department continues to identify resources within the recurring budget that could be used to support the AOV, so too each is using the funds identified to help advance Notre Dame’s global research and educational impact. According to Edward Maginn, the Dorini Family Professor of Energy Studies and department chair, one of the AOV initiatives within the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering involves adding faculty in five key areas.

Although the department is one of the most highly ranked departments within the University — with undergraduate and graduate numbers exploding over the last decade — the number of faculty within the department has not changed. In fact, the faculty headcount is generally smaller than those in peer institutions. “If we want to continue our upward trajectory,” says Maginn, “we must expand our department.”

He adds that adding new faculty will also reduce class size and provide more hands-on research opportunities for students in the additional labs created by the new faculty.

The plan is straightforward: hire eight new faculty in the department over the next four years, in catalysis and reaction engineering, micro- and nanofluidics and sensing, materials for energy and separations, computation and theory and biomolecular engineering. Each of these areas will build upon existing strengths within the department, as well as supporting the mission of Notre Dame to “heal, unify, and enlighten.” Maginn says that by adding even one or two more people in an existing area, the collective group created can build much stronger, more synergistic programs, tackle bigger and more difficult problems, and compete for larger more impactful grants.

The three most recent departmental hires are Thomas F. Degnan Jr., the Anthony Earley Professor of Energy and the Environment; Jen Schaefer, assistant professor; and Jonathan K. Whitmer, assistant professor. Degnan, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, joined the University in 2015, having most recently served as manager of breakthrough and leads generation at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering. Degnan works in the area of heterogenous catalysis. Specifically he is engaged in the development of new materials that can carry out chemical reactions in an efficient manner. In fact, he has developed a wide range of new materials that are currently used in petrochemical production and oil refining. He is the inventor or co-inventor listed on more than 100 issued United States patents and was awarded the American Chemical Society Hero of Chemistry Award in 2007 and the American Institute of Chemical Engineering Chemical Reaction Engineering Award in 2010 for his contributions to industrial catalysis.

Schaefer, who came to Notre Dame in July 2015, focuses on understanding ion transport and reaction in polymers, composite materials, and fluids at interfaces. Of particular interest are challenges related to high energy density electrochemical energy storage devices, including improved solid polymer electrolytes and batteries based on multivalent ions. She joins the University from the Materials Science and Engineering Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where she served as an NRC postdoctoral fellow.

Whitmer joined the University in July 2014. He uses advanced computational methods to study soft materials, with a particular emphasis on understanding the equilibrium morphologies of charged biopolymers, the elastic behavior of functional nanomaterials used in materials such as biosensors, and the mechanisms whereby materials such as colloidal particles self-assemble in solution. Most recently, Whitmer served as a postdoctoral research scientist at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at Argonne National Laboratories and the University of Chicago.