Faculty of the Month

Each month, the AIChE officers will select one ChE faculty member to interview and highlight on this page. We hope this will give students the opportunity to get to know a little more about the men and women of the Department, their research interests, and more. Tune in each month for a new featured faculty member!

Why did you choose chemical engineering?

Just because it was so diverse. A friend of mine was a chemical engineer, and I was a biology major at the time. I liked it because I could work on biological problems I was interested in, but it was much more rigorous, much more of a mathematical approach, with less memorizing of bold terms from textbooks. It had us approach these issues in a logical, problem-oriented way and solve a complex problem using engineering principles, and that appealed to me.

What is your favorite thing about being a chemical engineer?

That you can work on anything. That's the great thing about chemical engineering, and that's the great thing about my job. Anything I find interesting, I can do research, learn about it, and work on it. It's just a very diverse discipline, and you learn a lot of different things.

What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun?

Let's see. Well, I have two little girls, so I play with them a lot. Right now we're into Ever After High and we're into Octonauts, so I watch a lot of those shows with my daughters and play outside with them. Believe it or not, I run a lot, and I like running too.

Which class do you enjoy teaching the most?

Definitely ChE 2171. I just enjoy how that class touches on almost everything in chemical engineering, and I really care about our students. I want them to get off on the right foot and get off to a good start, so I enjoy helping them transition from having classes that are hard in other sciences to focusing also on the chemical engineering start to things, so I really enjoy that class.

What do you think beginning ChE students or prospective ChE students should know about the major and the field? Any advice or tips?

My biggest advice would be to not get down on yourself. I mean, most of the students who come into our discipline have been all-stars their whole life, in the top ten or fifteen percent in their class in high school and probably didn't have to study very much, and things just kind of came naturally to them. But eventually, if you stay in school long enough and you choose a rigorous discipline like chemical engineering, you find a course that challenges you, whether it's 2171, Fluids, Unit Ops, somewhere along the way you're going to get challenged. And it's hard - maybe you get your first test back and you did worse than you thought - it's hard to pick yourself up off the mat and say "I can do this." Because your first reaction is to say "what's going on here, I've never had this happen to me in a class before" so I would just say to be strong. Everybody has a trouble at one point or another in the curriculum, and you can do it. Just develop the study habits you need, you know: keeping up with your homework, going to class, paying attention in class, not just picking up notes, but really focusing, working hard on problems and homework. It's a great discipline that'll pay off with a great job for you one day, and everybody has a class that's really challenging, so you've got to just fight through that and not get down on yourself.

Dr. Thibodeaux will retire at the end of December after 47 years of teaching in the Department. AIChE would like to extend to him a great deal of gratitude and wishes him all the very best in retirement.

Why did you choose chemical engineering?

I started in Petroleum Engineering, here at LSU, and I got a summer job at a small refinery, and just got fascinated by what those processes were - separation and distillation, all of those. When I came back, I found out about a dual-degree where you could continue your Petroleum Engineering, but you could get a Chemical Engineering degree too, in five years. So I went over to that route, and that's what I got my B.S. in.

What is your favorite thing about being a chemical engineer?

The education. The training you receive in Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics provides a really strong background to do not only Chemical Engineering, but other things as well. And early on, I got interested in the environment; my first jobs that I received were with handling waste, so it looks like I was destined for it. I got good at it and started to like it, and that's what evolved into Environmental Chemodynamics, the course that I invented here. It has to do with chemical processes, but processes in nature. The same processes occur out there as occur inside factories, except that in manufacturing, you make money. But in our practice of Chemical Engineering, a lot of our used products and waste end up out there, in nature, and while I'm not into waste treatment or cleanup, I answer, and Environmental Chemodynamics answers: where does all that material go? And how? What concentration levels does it achieve as it is produced and released? So I don't make things, but I use theory and models to estimate exposure.

What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun?

They change with time. Right now, my hobbies are reading Louisiana history and sailing. I have three sailboats right now, a 23-foot long Catalina sailboat that I keep down on False River, and two other smaller ones that I'm preparing for my grandchildren. I like reading history in general. Right now, I'm in my Louisiana phase, but I've gone through my Napoleon phase, my Louis and Clark phase, and my Thomas Jefferson phase.

Which class do you enjoy teaching the most?

Well, my favorite undergraduate ChE class is Heat and Mass. I like transport, mass transport in particular. I really enjoy it and understand it, and it's very real to me. And Environmental Chemodynamics is really applied mass transfer in nature - chemicals moving as a mass transfer, really. So I have enjoyed those.

What do you think beginning ChE students or prospective ChE students should know about the major and the field? Any advice or tips?

The major concern is that, if in the second year, you feel like you're really lost, it's a good time to consider your options and maybe consider something else. Chemical Engineering is too specialized to spend your life on, and it's not a fun trip if you don't understand it. It's not a fun thing to do, and the money's not worth the effort. So find your niche, find your skill set, and if it's not in math, chemistry, physics - things that support Chemical Engineering - then you'll be miserable, it won't be a route for happiness. But if you understand it and enjoy it, you'll be happy. I've been happy for 47 years with it, and I like what I do. Sometimes I work on weekends because it's more fun than fishing. But it only works if you understand it and it's in your skill set, if it's something you feel strongly about.

Why did you choose chemical engineering?

At first I wanted to be pre-med, and I liked math classes, so I was getting a math minor. Freshman year I did general classes, and then during sophomore year, I saw all of the hoops you had to jump through to get into medical school. I also started taking biology classes, and I couldn't stand how they would test it - multiple choice tests and all that. But I really liked chemistry and I really liked math, so I changed into chemical engineering - still thinking I wanted to go to medical school, but leaving the window open so that I would have options if I didn't want to deal with med school. So ChemE added on another year to my degree, but I stuck with it, and I did an REU at Maryland, then another one at South Carolina, and after those, I knew I wanted to go to grad school. I've always been interested in bio work, so I looked for grad schools that had a bio presence in their programs. I wound up working under a guy at NC State who did biotech work sort of on the fringe of chemical engineering - we were looking at cell migration in response to certain chemicals, kind of like how cancer metastasis works. I also always knew that I wanted to teach. So I got in touch with Felder at NC State and TA'd for him, so he helped with out with some educational development. I got some teaching experience there too, actually, and got to teach the equivalent of 2171 there.

What is your favorite thing about being a chemical engineer?

The fact that we can really do anything. With chemical engineering, there are so many different things you can do with a degree - here, we have a lot of traditional petrochemical, catalysis, that sort of thing, but we've got people who work on cancer diagnostics and cellular processes, you've got people who do things with microprocessors, you've got modelers, experimentalists, all that. Plus we have people who go to law school, medical school, business school. SO you can do chemistry and math, but that's just the beginning.

What are your hobbies?

I'm an assistant professor, so my hobbies are: working, working, and working some more (not really). So my wife and I have a two-year-old daughter and we try to spend time with her. My wife and I are also avid college football fans, and she went to Ohio State but I grew up outside of Detroit, so we've had the whole Michigan-Ohio rivalry going on. We watch a lot of college football, a lot of professional football (go Detroit Lions!) and all that. Other than that, I swim, I play golf, and I play some Halo.

What do you think beginning ChE students or prospective ChE students should know about the major and the field? Any advice or tips?

It's going to be harder than you think. From what I've seen at places like NC State, a lot of people would pick their major based on earning potential, and they wouldn't realize how hard it was going to be. And you can see this in the transition from freshman year to 2171, where it's a completely different animal. So keep in mind that it's hard work, but I think it's fun, and there's a lot that you can do with it. Also, I find that the people who tend to struggle most with the major are the ones who are in it and don't really know why. If you have an idea of what you want to do, that helps. So if you want to do it, it's a journey, but it's best to have an endgame goal in mind. So make sure that you have a plan!

Why did you choose chemical engineering, and in particular, why did you choose to teach at LSU?

At my high school, guidance counselling was not a well-developed art like it is now, and when I sat down with my guidance counselor, he suggested I be a chemist because I liked chemistry, or an engineer because I was good at math, so I agreed, and that's how I signed up for Chemical Engineering. As for teaching at LSU, it's an interesting thing - I worked for thirty years in industry before coming here, and all that time, I thought I might want to get into teaching at some point. While I was there, I ran the training department for a while and did some instructing. I finally decided that I'd done everything I wanted to do at the research laboratories, so I thought "let's go try to teach." I first tried to teach high school, but I wasn't always up for handling all the discipline issues that were involved in high school, and even though there were some great people doing good work there, I decided that it wasn't working for me. At that time, the Department advertised for someone to come work in the Unit Operations laboratory, and within two weeks of leaving high school, I was teaching here.

What is your favorite thing about being a chemical engineer, especially at LSU?

Working with the students, definitely. I like trying to figure things out with them, trying to share with them that this whole discipline is about thinking and trying to figure these problems out. In fact, I sometimes try to create problems where I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen, and so I get to be challenged at the same time the students do, and they get to watch the critical thinking process go on. The process of asking all the questions and figuring out all the information is invigorating. It feels natural. Also, the students keep me young, and I enjoy the time I get to spend with them in the lab. We're all learning things, since I keep up with the journals and try to develop problems based on current things I read in there, all using the equipment we have available, so it's almost as though I get to do research on the experiment. But the student interaction, definitely, is my favorite part.

What are your hobbies?

There are three prevalent ones: I play music - I was in a band for fifteen years, now I play just at church - keyboards and horns, and at church an electronic wind instrument, which is a synthesizer, but played by wind instead of keys. Also, I play chess, and I'm a moderator on a chess server, so I stay involved in the chess community. The third is that I run - last year, Dr. Benton and I ran the Baton Rouge marathon, and we both finished it. I also read a lot, but I don't ever pick up fiction, always technical things, and often things out of my field, which are very interesting.

What do you think beginning ChE students or prospective ChE students should know about the major and the field? Any advice or tips?

I think they should know that it's hard. There probably isn't a harder degree on campus. It's demanding and requires some breadth of thinking abilities beyond simply cranking out math - you have to be a problem solver, too, or at least interested in problem solving. I don't want to scare people off, but the idea is that if you don't like solving problems, it's going to be an uphill challenge. Something I learned later in my career was the idea of "motivated ability," that if you like doing something, you do well at it and you'll be happy with it. One of the things I tell prospective students when they come here is to not have a monolithic view of what chemical engineers do, because we can do anything, and we do do anything. We're involved in almost every inventive and creative field around, whether it's growing food, making electronics, pharmaceuticals - there's not a thing we don't get involved in, so it's not like all we do is run distillation columns. And if you decide not to do chemical engineering, we send people off to be doctors, lawyers, anything, so it will prepare you for anything, and you can't ask for a better four-year diploma, and it's a fantastic field; it's the best preparation for business life that I can think of. Also, if you don't like going to class, you probably won't do well. So it's a daunting field, but a fantastic field.

Why did you choose chemical engineering?

It just happened accidentally - I knew I wanted to do engineering, but not specifically chemical. I did my undergraduate years in India, and the Chemical Engineering track admitted students the first year, whereas others made you wait until the third. They offered me a spot in Chem E so I played it safe and chose Chemical Engineering, and it has been a good journey since then. Since I started, I have been able to drift to math and physics, not just chemical reaction engineering. I can do fluid mechanics, heat and mass, etc. because those are the areas of the field I like - those and computers. I enjoyed those parts while I was learning engineering for the first time and have drifted towards those areas.

What is your favorite thing about being a chemical engineer, especially at LSU?

LSU has unique opportunities in terms of interacting with local chemical industry. I have been involved in forming EPIC, which stands for Enabling Process Innovation through Computation. It is a group based on the idea of having a sense of excellence and cooperation for research at and beyond the graduate level. Right now, we want to go and talk to industries and have them support us in our goal. We also broadcast a series every other Friday where prominent people talk about what they're doing in industry and academics, and you can find out more about our efforts at Epic.lsu.edu. I'm particularly interested in computers and using computation in research because while other engineering disciplines have moved ahead, but many of the technologies we use in ChE for plants and other processes have been going on for 60 years.

What are your hobbies?

I really don't have any significant hobbies other than passive hobbies. Rather, I don't have an active hobby. For example, I like to read books but don't have a lot of time between EPIC and teaching classes to read. I do like all kinds of music, though. There are two schools of music in India, north and south classical Indian music. I was also introduced to western classical and jazz when I came to North America. I have a good music collection, which is on the cloud now so I can listen to it wherever I want.

What is your favorite class that you teach?

I love teaching and enjoy teaching any class. I have taught all the core classes across my career, but at LSU I don't get to teach a great variety that often - I have taught 2176 for years, for example. I was at Alberta for 25 years before LSU, and I taught the other ChE classes there. I still feel like I'm learning by explaining things in different ways to different students, because it's like diagnosing a patient for a doctor in that I get to sit down one on one with a student and understand what they are having trouble with and the best way to teach them, which teaches me new things. I haven't taught reaction engineering but might be interested in doing so. I also have on Youtube four of the courses that I taught. The channel is called CheLecKumar and has 70000 views and 600 subscribers.

What do you think beginning ChE students or prospective ChE students should know about the major and the field? Any advice or tips?

It's the journey that you're enjoying, not the particular field or why you chose it. Every field has challenges. I would say to the current generation, in terms of future challenges, that there are certain areas to keep an eye on. If I were a grad student today, for example, I would gravitate toward major challenges: energy and the environment. Renewable energy because it is important to understand bio processes that capture energy from sun, such as biofuels, etc. as opposed to necessarily fossil fuels, because there is a one way flow of fossil fuels - we want a balance between consumption and productions such that the rate of each is equal. Also, the knowledge of transport and processes that ChE's learn is very valuable for many careers. ChEs are proficient for looking at bio processes in the human bodies for disease processes and mechanisms, as opposed to clinical way that doctors do with clinical trials. ChEs can use transport technologies to help analyze what's going on. So people interested in grad school and all that should take on those two challenges specifically.

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