The Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has one goal: To feed and power the world. It does so effortlessly through its ABET-accredited BS in Agricultural and Biological Engineering programme, which is currently ranked third in the US for its ability to produce professionals capable of addressing grand challenges related to food, water, energy, and the environment.
This is precisely what Fina Healy set out to do when she chose the programme. She realised her calling to develop more sustainable solutions for our world as a high-schooler — her earliest initiatives include recycling chip bags and creating a vermiculture compost bin at school. To achieve global-scale impact, she knew she needed the right kind of guidance, which is specifically what UIUC is known for providing thanks to its intimate class sizes. Thankfully, that’s exactly what she got.
“I wasn’t just a number in a large lecture hall,” she reminisces. “All the professors and advisors knew me by name, making it easier to reach out for personal career advising and research opportunities.”
Their insights taught her to study efficiently and maintain good grades. They even opened numerous doors for her to gain international perspectives in South Africa, land scholarships, forge industry connections, and effectively carry out her role as president of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.
Her academic success eventually led to a full-time job at Tigerbrain Engineering, where she researches drainage runoff for airport cement concrete to integrate it back into the environment — unsurprising as 100% of ABE students reported securing their first choice destination upon graduation with an impressive average starting salary of US$73,200. They do so in Fortune 500 companies, consulting firms, academia, government agencies, non-profit groups, and research institutions.
Programme flexibility plays a pivotal role in these outstanding outcomes. For example, Healy took the Sustainable Ecosystem Engineering and Design route, but ABE students are welcome to specialise in Bioprocess Engineering and Industrial Biotechnology, Soil and Water Resources Engineering, Off-road Equipment Engineering, or Renewable Energy Systems Engineering as well.
Katie Koprowski chose to focus on Nanoscale Biological Engineering. “Taking Genetic Engineering Lab techniques within the Crop Sciences Department solidified my interest in this specialisation,” she explains.
Her choice proved fruitful due to its experiential nature. “Over the course of the semester, I picked up a multitude of wet-lab techniques including PCR, cloning, gel electrophoresis, and SDS-PAGE; and techniques to design plasmids with restriction enzymes,” she says.
Koprowski’s capstone project was to clone a hairy root gene into an E. coli plasmid and to infect a soybean plant with the E. coli plasmid. To her and her team’s excitement, a few days after infecting the Soybean plant with E.coli, hairy roots started to form from the soybean seed.
As part of the Ignite Research experience and Global Food Security Scholar programme, she got to investigate the effectiveness of different herbal antibacterials in inhibiting the growth of common water-borne pathogens. She also got to work in Dean Rashid Bashir’s lab to investigate lab-on-a-chip microfluidic platforms paired with Reverse-Transcription Loop-Mediated Amplification to detect blood-borne viruses like Zika.
These experiences thoroughly prepared her for the Bioengineering PhD she’s pursuing today. “The gain in my scientific literacy would be incredibly beneficial for my future research endeavours, especially now in graduate school, as I can now effectively identify limitations in publications, and formulate new innovative research ideas to address said limitations,” she attests.
Upon graduating, Koprowski hopes to start her own lab as a research professor at an institution just as dynamic as the university that made her. Ideally, she will maintain her focus on the biomedical diagnostics/biosensor field. With the exposure she’s received so far, anything is possible — the ABE Department’s emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and its direct link to UIUC’s Grainger College of Engineering certainly ensured this. Outside the ABE, she’s explored courses in Synthetic Nanomaterials, Biomaterials, Genetic Engineering, and Biosensors, just to name a few.
“My exceptional experiences as an undergraduate researcher within the department, and the world-renowned calibre of the faculty at U of I were the deciding factors in continuing my graduate studies at the U of I,” enthuses the doctoral student.
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