Katrina Le didn’t think about going into engineering when she was planning her future after high school. But all it took to ignite her interest, she says, was meeting University of Utah chemical engineering assistant professor Kerry E. Kelly and associate professor (lecturer) Tony Butterfield.

Le, a Utah native who is now a senior working toward an Honors Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the U, credits Kelly and Butterfield, along with chemical engineering assistant professor Thomas Zangle, with introducing her to a world of science and technology she never knew existed before. And she’s come a long way since joining the U. Le, will be this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award for the College of Engineering, given to one student in each college or school at the U.

The awards given out based on a record of sustained commitment to developing research skills and knowledge under the supervision of a faculty mentor; evidence of independent and critical thinking; active participation in research-related activities on campus; and positive contributions to the research culture of the department, college, and university. The awards will be presented April 4 by the U’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

We asked Katrina questions about why she wanted to attend the U and what her college experiences were like.

What have you been researching on during your undergraduate studies?

I have been lucky enough to be involved with multiple research activities. Currently, I am looking at the buckling deformation of biocompatible active soft materials, specifically polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), and how to chemically induce buckling and simulate it. I have also worked on distributing low-cost air quality sensors throughout the Salt Lake Valley to get a better picture of air quality.

What faculty members have you been working with, and have how they have helped you in your research?

With my research concerning PDMS buckling, I have been working with Dr. Thomas A. Zangle. Dr. Zangle has been incredible in mentoring me on how to think critically through my research. He’s taught me how to not only ask the whats and hows of my research but really ask the whys. He’s challenged me to reach a more in-depth understanding of my research and the best way to conduct my research.

Dr. Kerry Kelly and Dr. Tony Butterfield were my mentors for my research concerning air quality. They really showed me that research can benefit and impact the community in a positive way. Beforehand, I had the misconception that research usually stays in academic journals and the lab. Since working with Dr. Kelly and Dr. Butterfield on research that addresses a community issue, I have learned that research can lead to community-wide education and inspire the community to directly address issues that impact us and our health.

Why did you pick the U to get your degree?

I am from Taylorsville, Utah. For high school, I was lucky enough to go to the Academy for Math, Engineering, and Science (AMES), which is a high school that offers concurrent enrollment with the U. During high school, I was able to take U classes, but also, I had the wonderful opportunity through the internship class at AMES to work with Dr. Butterfield and Dr. Kelly. I worked on the Building Block Air Quality Sensor Teaching Module where K-12 students throughout the Salt Lake Valley build their very own air quality sensors with LEGOs and simple electronic parts. When it came down to the decision as to where I would go to college, the U seemed like the best option as I had become involved in the community and the U, and it offered wonderful research opportunities. Plus, it was in-state, and scholarships made it the most affordable option.

How did you first become interested in pursuing engineering and chemical engineering? Was it something that started when you were young?

I always enjoyed problem-solving and math when I was younger. I also loved doing puzzles and being creative and hands-on. The funny thing is I didn’t realize that what I was interested in involved engineering. In fact, I didn’t even think I would pursue an engineering degree back when I was a junior in high school. It was only when I started interning with Dr. Butterfield and Dr. Kelly that I became interested in pursuing an engineering degree, and specifically, a chemical engineering degree.

I chose to intern for Dr. Butterfield and Dr. Kelly in high school because the things they were doing seemed intriguing.  As I interned more and learned what I could do in chemical engineering with research on issues that impact the community, I fell in love with the field. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with chemical engineering if it weren’t for the passion Dr. Butterfield and Dr. Kelly have for their work and were it not for the opportunity to work on impactful research concerning air quality.

What would you like to do when you finish with your bachelor’s degree?

I would like to work for a while doing R&D work with an engineering company. After that, I plan on returning to pursue a Ph.D. and work on medical-related research.

What has your experience been like so far attending the U and the College of Engineering?

My experience attending the U and the College of Engineering has been wonderful! I’ve met so many wonderful friends and faculty and feel like I am really a part of a big community. I’ve really been able to challenge myself through my education and research at the U, which has led to a lot of fun at the College of Engineering.