Chemical Engineer Chris Ellison: “I Like to Understand How Things Work”

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Twenty years ago, if anyone had told Christopher Ellison he would one day become a professor, he’d have never believed them.

“I would’ve told you that you were absolutely nuts,” he says.

As the first person in his family to attend a four-year university, the associate professor of chemical engineering used to think earning a bachelor’s degree would be enough for him. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be doing something no one in my family has ever done and I’ll have a good career,’” he says. But Ellison loved learning too much. He went to grad school, earned his PhD from Northwestern University, and eventually joined the faculty at UT’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering in 2008.

Now Ellison says his students are some of his most powerful motivators. And with 14 patents and more than 80 scholarly publications to his name, he was just made the recipient of the 2016 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research, one of the most prestigious scientific awards in Texas. The award, which is given annually to the field’s rising stars in the state along with $100,000, was presented to Ellison on Monday by the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

Looking at his research, it’s easy to see why Ellison was chosen. He has an eye for how projects might be applied and commercialized. Practicality is the number-one basis for his research, and along with the help of other faculty collaborators, he and his lab have achieved success in a variety of scientific areas.

One of his most important breakthroughs is his production of “green fibers,” which can be used in regenerative medicine, filtration systems, and protective clothing. The fibers eliminate the use of harmful solvents, reduce energy needs, and can be produced at lower costs. He has also found a way to manipulate polymers, or plastics, to increase computer memory capacity. Ellison’s latest project was the development of a flame retardant, using dopamine secreted from marine mussels to replace commercially used materials that are often toxic.

“The research we do is usually done with purpose and the feeling that it could have an impact on society and the way humans live,” he says.

These intersections have long been the driving forces behind Ellison’s career. His interest in science began as a kid in Nebraska, where he came from a family of farmers. By watching relatives fix what was broken, he became interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. “Whether it’s the natural world or man-made machines, I very much like to understand how things work,” he says.

Ellison, who also recently won one of the highest teaching awards in the McKetta Department, says one of the best parts about being a professor is seeing his students grow over time and always teaching them to learn from their failures in the lab. He also likes the freedom of being able to choose research topics, though he’s not always sure what comes next.

“But,” he says, “that’s what makes research fun.”

Photo courtesy of Becca Gamache.

 

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