Scholar of the Week

Melissa Barona      
Northwestern University

Melissa Barona is pursuing her doctoral degree in chemical engineering at Northwestern University. She is the recipient of a highly competitive $10,000 HENAAC Scholarship sponsored by the Intel Foundation.

Melissa grew up in Palmira, a small city in southwestern Colombia located 20 miles east from Cali, Colombia. She moved to the U.S., with her family, at the age of eleven and entered seventh grade with no knowledge of English. Melissa became interested in calculus, chemistry, and physics, and in her senior year, proceeded to apply to universities where chemical engineering was offered. However, her family wanted her to stay close by, so she settled on the University of Miami, which did offer a chemical engineering program. Yet, she was determined and dedicated to reach her goal of becoming a chemical engineer. So, Melissa chose to double major in environmental engineering and chemistry and worked towards preparing a strong graduate school application by participating in research, maintaining a high GPA, and seeking opportunities that provided knowledge and experience in the field of chemical engineering.

A focused and research oriented individual, she received the Outstanding Graduating Senior Award, the American Chemical Society Undergraduate Student Award in Environmental Chemistry, and an American Chemical Society Scholarship. She also achieved the President’s Honor Roll.

Melissa was one of a few environmental engineer students at the University, let alone a female engineer. One of her closest peers describes has as a beautiful person, inside and out, who is focused, intelligent, and always willing to learn new things. Outside of the classroom, Melissa served as the editor and then treasurer of the Chi Epsilon National Civil Engineering Honor Society. She was a member of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society. Florida Water Environment Association, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

Melissa completed her undergraduate degree with cum luade honors. She arrived in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering at Northwestern University with a strong undergraduate record as a double major, including significant research experiences.

As an undergraduate, Melissa participated in several research experience. During the summer of 2013, she interned in The Chemistry of Materials for Renewable Energy Summer Program in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She conducted research observing and studying the growth of microbes in solubilized sugars from biomass to ultimately improve their tolerance against the solvent gamma-Valerolactone (GVL), which is used to extract fermentable sugars for the production of chemicals and fuels. From December 2012 – October 2013, she performed research in the College of Engineering, at the University of Miami. She analyzed the potential for sugarcane bagasse to serve as the primary substrate for hydrogen production, a possible alternative source of energy for Cuba. She submitted the project to various competitions (FWEA Student Competition, ASCE Annual Meeting, Cuban Infrastructure Challenge, Research Creativity and Innovation Forum). Finally, from May 2012 – March 2013, she volunteered at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, to conduct analysis of oil spill samples with new laboratory techniques such as extraction and elution, which were new to her. She collaborated in reports that analyzed the decadal changes in oceanic parameters and carbon dioxide storage. Based on her work, she created a research poster for a reception held by the honors program at the university.

Because of her undergraduate scholarship, she earned two prestigious national awards – The GEM Consortium Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. In January 2015, Melissa joined the Snurr Group aimed at finding better ways to use the heavier components of natural gas and convert these molecules to useful fuels or chemicals. As part of the Inorganometallic Catalysis Design Center (ICDC), an Energy Frontier Research Center devoted to computationally guided discovery of a new class of energy-science-relevant catalytic materials, Melissa is working in Linux clusters to develop models of catalysts and reaction mechanisms for natural gas conversion.

Melissa’s family and her developing country – Columbia – are her source of inspiration for her career trajectory. Her past personal and educational experiences at the University of Miami have defined her objective to become an advocate of sustainability - understanding human interactions with the environment and the impact of economic, political and social decisions. Her long-term goal is to obtain hands-on experience in the evaluation of sustainable practices and to contribute to the development of the Hispanic community.

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