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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: David Carruthers

“This has been a transformative experience. I’m falling in love with research, this school, and this community. I’m excited with these opportunities and I want to move forward with them in a constructive way.”

With a background steeped in hard sciences, David is interested in a career in environmentalism. He was drawn to U-M by the dual degree program in Chemical Engineering and Sustainable Systems, recognizing it as a perfect combination of programs to build the skills he needs. Being able to graduate with two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan was a nice incentive as well. He says, “I love chemical engineering, but I want to focus on sustainable aspects of the field. There are many different perspectives and avenues within the industry. I want to consider the externalities of environmental degradation through anthropogenic climate change and how to take that, quantify it, and help put that into policy.”

The interdisciplinary nature of his program has helped David identify unique and important perspectives that will help him meet this goal. Not only is he able to take classes in the College of Engineering and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, but David has also taken classes at the Ross School of Business. “This helps me think about sustainable practices for development from a very holistic perspective, looking at cutting edge research and market responses to determine where we need to be in ten years,” he says.

David’s finishing his 2 ½ year program in two years, thanks in part to a boost over the summer from a Rackham Spring/Summer Research Award that allowed him to make significant progress on his thesis. “This funding was really useful – it funded my research for the entire summer and facilitated my moving forward with that project, which we hope will be finished by the end of fall. This has allowed me the ability to really maximize my coursework at Michigan and engage in topics I probably would not have been able to explore.”

In his thesis-based master’s program, David examines biofuels, specifically bio-based algae fuels. “While legislative approaches are certainly necessary for curbing carbon emissions, robust scientific advances will be useful in offering optimized second and third generation fuels that could provide a less carbon intensive fuel source in regards to fossil fuel analogues. Generally the focus on algae as a biofuel involves genetic engineering specific traits that either increase oil production or simply maximize the growth rate. And while this is one avenue of research, in the end we are interested in developing a cost competitive biofuel. There are certainly multiple strategies that can be employed to do that.”

Dr. Xiaoxia (Nina) Lin, David’s faculty advisor, examines microbial communities by looking specifically at symbiotic relationships that increase community productivity. One potential breakthrough in algal biofuel production involves exploiting complementary community mechanics that support growth and biomass accumulation in multi-species algae communities, or polycultures. This accumulation, coined transgressive overyielding, results in an increase in the overall biomass of a community with respect to its individual constituents. David has been developing a microfluidic platform, which makes microdroplets of algal communities in a high throughput manner to study this phenomenon. Discovering productive relationships in this context, he says, will contribute to the development of an optimized platform for algal biofuel production.

David spent most of his summer undertaking research and data analysis in Dr. Lin’s lab, the result of which will be a paper they are submitting in the coming months. He describes, “This project got me very interested in academic research. It certainly shifted my focus somewhat, and I’m now considering moving into a Ph.D. program or pursuing research in industry after graduation. I’m actually applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship just now.”

He continues, “There are great opportunities that became available through the work I’m doing. I feel like I’m in a very strong position to pursue a career in energy or biofuels and that is a product of the opportunities here at Michigan. I’ve gained a good understanding how to combine sustainability problems with a solid research focus and really have an impact.”

“In our lab, we are looking for new solutions and projects that often tend towards sustainability. In our program, we have labs working with things like biofuels, fuel cells, and photocatalysis. The sustainability movement is fairly new, but it’s growing substantially. We now have a significant number of graduate students and a growing quantity of resources dedicated to the field.”

A meaningful part of David’s student experience has been through educational outreach programs in lower income communities, and he sees the need and opportunity for more initiatives to come. He explains, “I’d like to see more outreach to inspire students to pursue technology fields. Often science takes a backseat for students, and that’s simply bad for society. I would want to get involved in something that builds outreach for specific communities to work on solutions for the community, things like Engineering without Borders, but done on a much more local level.” However, he acknowledges, “Outreach can be difficult for master’s students because they are just here for two years. It’s hard to get a foothold and get involved if you’re not on campus for long. The scope is difficult.”

Michigan is a good fit for David. “Ann Arbor is an excellent town, and coming here has been a really positive experience. I really like the student body, it’s a great social scene, and I like the Ph.D. and other grad students. There is such a high caliber of students here and a very diverse graduate community. I’m surprised how much this is like a family; I love the community aspect. I didn’t have that in undergrad, so this is a good change,” he explains.

While he has some recreational activities in his life (Engineering and SNRE IM soccer teams, cycling with fellow students), he says, “I enjoy engineering so much that might count as a recreational activity for me.” He does get out of the lab, though, often with other grad students, to explore the state of Michigan and partake in fall rites of passage like visits to cider mills and apple orchards, a welcome experience for this California native.