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Techie Receives Nation’s Top Chemical Engineering Scholarship

SOCORRO, N.M. November 17, 2010 – Chemical engineering senior Mason Risley is the recipient of the top scholarship from the American Institute of Chemical Engineering.

A native of Santa Fe, Risley was selected from a nationwide pool of students to receive the John J. McKetta Scholarship. The $5,000 award is based on a three-page essay about career goals, recommendation letters and academic performance.

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Mason Risley accepts his John J. McKetta Scholarship during the AIChE conference recently.

“It’s definitely a privilege and honor to receive this award,” Risley said. “There’s only one offered each year. It seems pretty prestigious. My transfer scholarship ran out last year, so I was falling into debt this semester. When I saw that I got this award, I was pretty relieved. I should be able to graduate without any debt. Considering I am putting myself through college, that’s a big accomplishment. It’s definitely an honor to receive this award.”

Risley is the president of the student chapter of the AIChE. He was among about a dozen Tech students who attended the Institute’s annual conference in Salt Lake City, where he was officially presented the award.

Set to graduate in May 2011, Risley hopes to pursue a doctorate in chemical engineering, with a focus in fields of chemical kinetics or energy. Risley said he wants to leave a legacy of research, development, education and service to the field of chemical engineering.

“I’d like to make significant contributions to the discipline during my time as a chemical engineer,” he said. “I feel the best way I can do that is to earn a doctorate. As for my career, I’d like to work in private industry, then be a professor after retiring from industry. I hope to use my experience to give back as much as I can to future engineers.”

Risley spent one year at Santa Fe Community College before transferring to Tech. One of his instructors in Santa Fe, David Bloomfield, influenced him profoundly, Risley said.

As president of the student chapter of AIChE, Risley is emphasizing outreach efforts. He is working with Liz Burton, president of the Society of Women Engineers chapter at New Mexico Tech, to lay the groundwork for establishing a tutoring program at Socorro High School and Sarracino Middle School.

“I want to expose students to what engineering is all about,” he said.

Working with Dr. Michael Riley for the past year, Risley is on the trail of a new clay-based material to be used as a catalyst in hydrogen fuel cells. He has conducted an extensive literature review and is testing new materials in the laboratory. He has learned to use a handful of mainstay lab instruments and honed his research skills along the way.

“Going into grad school, it’s important to have research experience,” Risley said. “The biggest benefit I’ve gotten out of my research is how to be as resourceful as possible. When you’re on your own and you have to identify an approach to take for the research, figuring it out and pulling it off are crucial aspects. The research work ethic I’ve gained over the past year is also very valuable.”

Risley submitted three letters of recommendation – from his chapter advisor Dr. Michaelann Tartis, his research advisor Riley and from chemistry professor Dr. Jeff Altig.

Tartis wrote that, “Mason has exuded enthusiasm, self-reliance, and leadership in and outside of the classroom. He is eager to learn and makes good use of his resources to ensure that his understanding of engineering is solid.”

Tartis also praised Risley for his leadership and participation in the AIChE chapter, including mentoring freshmen, getting underclassmen involved in the club and exposed to chemical engineering activities, creating a club website, fund-raising and event planning.

Riley wrote that Risley has performed above all expectations in research projects. Risley is working on catalyst deposition to ionically-conductive nanoclays for use in fuel cell applications. He is also working to improve the efficiency and reduce time and labor associated with our ion-exchange and deposition processes.

For two years, Risley worked at the campus computing center as a user consultant.  He served as a liaison between Dr. Jeff Altig’s physical chemistry class and the computing center. In 2008, Risley worked as a Technical Student Worker for the Petroleum Recovery and Research Center, constructing a pH sensing electrode for high temperature and pressure CO2 monitoring.

Funded by the Dekker Foundation, the scholarship is named after retired University of Texas professor Dr. John J. McKetta Jr., who is regarded as a pioneer in the field of chemical engineering. He retired in 1990 after teaching for 44 years and serving seven years as the dean engineering in Austin. Now age 95, McKetta still comes into his office several times a week to meet with students, colleagues, and the occasional visiting grandchild. He also calls each of his former students on their 65th birthday (this averages about three calls a day).

McKetta is an international authority on the thermodynamic properties of hydrocarbons, served as energy advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, and has published over 400 papers and written or edited 87 books. In recent years, he completed his 68-volume "Encyclopedia of Chemical Processing and Design," which he worked on for over 25 years. The encyclopedia stands out from other such resources in that it focuses not exclusively on chemical theory and basics, but on the practical application of chemical engineering fundamentals.

He was also a founding member of the National Council for Environmental Balance, as well as President Reagan's appointee to the Acid Rain Precipitation Task Force. Along with his students, McKetta predicted the first accurate method for determining the temperature profile of a flowing oil well or gas well.

The McKetta Scholarship is funded by the Dekker Foundation. Established in 1997, the Dekker Foundation is a private foundation endowed by Marcel Dekker Inc. and the Dekker family. As publishers of scientific, technical, and medical information for almost 60 years, the Dekkers are deeply committed to furthering knowledge.

In 1939, Dr. Maurits Dekker, his wife Rozetta Roos, and their three children fled the Netherlands shortly before Germany declared war on that country. They arrived in New York on the next to last ocean liner to successfully complete the crossing. While they narrowly escaped the Holocaust, almost none of their family in Europe survived the war.

Dr. Dekker founded Interscience Publishers in 1940 and his son Marcel founded Marcel Dekker Inc. in 1963. They have supported organizations that advocate education, tolerance and community. This work continues in the Dekker Foundation, created by a new generation of Dekkers to build on their family's commitment to education.

The scholarship is also supported by the family of Norman and Beverly Cameron, both retired academics from the University of Manitoba, and their youngest son, Fraser, currently a doctoral engineering student at Stanford. The Camerons support the fund in memory of Norman’s brother, Dr. Gordon Murray Cameron, who was a prominent chemical engineer.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech