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Mork Family Department Welcomes Students

Students gather in Gerontology Courtyard for an international welcome celebration and a chance to meet departmental faculty and staff

September 09, 2008 — The Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science welcomed its new and returning class of undergraduate and graduate students Sept. 5 during a special International Welcome Luncheon, which was webcast for Distance Education Network (DEN) students and the campus community.
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Students convened in the Gerontology Auditorium to listen to a department presentation by Chair Theodore Tsotsis and Professor Iraj Ershagi, the Omar B. Milligan Professor and director of the Petroleum Engineering Program.

The department, which spans a wide and growing range of research interests in chemical and petroleum engineering, and in materials science, now supports 236 undergraduate and graduate students and 30 faculty specializing in a richly diverse and innovative array of specialties. The department addresses two of the most critical societal needs of the 21st century: to develop affordable, environmentally safe alternative energy resources; and to create new synthetic materials and structures to treat diseases at the cellular and molecular levels.    

Students who gathered in the Gerontology Auditorium were introduced by Professor Iraj Ershagi, the Omar B. Milligan Professor and director of the Petroleum Engineering Program, to department faculty and staff, and then asked to come to the podium and introduce themselves.  

Some explained what drew them to the Mork Family Department.

WeiWei Mou, a Ph.D. student in materials science, said the chance to get involved in interdisciplinary research brought him to USC. “So many of the professors hold joint appointments in physics, electrical engineering, and so on,” he said.  “It will be exciting to get involved in the research.”

“Not only does the Viterbi School have a large research volume and basis,” said Michael Chou, a freshman chemical engineering major, “but I believe that the chemical and materials science program also makes an effort for students to be connected with real life industry.  Viterbi organizes career fairs at least once per semester, and this provides USC students with a valuable experience in interacting with companies and their representatives.”
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Mork Department faculty Andrea Armani, left, Rajiv Kalia, middle, and Kristian Jessen. 

After the introductions, Department Chair Theodore Tsotsis presented an overview of the department, emphasizing new degree programs and directions in research.    

Tsotsis said a new focus on energy research has been launched with the addition of several leading faculty, including Professors Dongxiao “Don” Zhang, Kristian Jessen and S. Joe Qin.  The department is also offering a new materials/polymers degree emphasis program for undergraduates and a new nanotechnology degree. Both of these degrees will better prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly molecular-oriented workplace while simultaneously training them for jobs in the chemical and fuels industries, as well as tissue engineering.

In addition to new degree programs, Assistant Professor C. Ted Lee will continue to lead a new National Science Foundation-supported effort, now in its second year, to integrate undergraduate research and education.  

The department also showcases a variety of lectureships and symposia throughout the year, bringing distinguished scholars, industry representatives and policymakers to campus for guest presentations in key areas of chemical engineering, energy and materials science.  They include the Lyman-Handy Distinguished Seminar/Lecturer series, the Spitzer Lecture, named in honor of physicist William G. Spitzer, who was a member of the USC Viterbi School faculty from 1963-1993, and the Pings Lecture, named for the late Cornelius J. Pings, a prominent chemical engineer and former USC provost.
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Students wait in line for the international buffet.

In parallel with new research initiatives and faculty growth, Tsotsis reported growth in the student body and a robust rise in the number of incoming freshmen, which has increased from 21 in 2006 to 45 in 2008. The department’s freshmen retention rate has also improved dramatically, he said, boasting a 95 percent freshman return rate in fall 2008.   

Thanks to the Mork family naming gift, announced in 2005 by engineering alumnus John Mork (BSPE ’70), the department has realized a 35 percent increase in student fellowships.  Eight student fellowships – three for continuing students and five new fellowships for incoming students -- were awarded this year, and more opportunities are expected in the years ahead.  As the endowment income is adjusted, Tsotsis said the department’s eventual goal will be to implement a “One-One-Three” model of student support, offering undergraduate fellowships, teaching assistantships and research assistantships to students at all levels of their degree programs.
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Professor Iraj Ershagi

The department is home to a unique global program – the Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies (CiSoft) – which supports both training and research in innovative ways of tackling critical energy technology challenges. A collaboration of USC, Chevron and others, CiSoft was recently awarded $915,000 in scholarships and training opportunities as part of the energy company’s global University Partnership Program (UPP).  Tsotsis called the center “a very unique program, not only for this country, but for the world.”    

CiSoft offers an MS degree in petroleum engineering with an emphasis on “smart oilfield technologies.”  Course content is provided by both USC and Chevron specialists and is designed to respond to the industry’s needs by training existing staff in new technologies, and developing potential new employees with skills related to the operation of smart oil fields. Nine fellowships were awarded this year to petroleum engineering students: five for undergraduate students, two for master’s degree students and two for Ph.D. students.

The Mork Family Department offers all of its MS degrees in chemical engineering, materials science, materials engineering and petroleum engineering through USC’s Distance Education Program.  

Before adjourning for an outdoor buffet of Chinese, Persian, Indian and American dishes, student leaders introduced their fellow students to professional organizations that are active in conferences and competitions throughout the year.  Organizations include the student chapters of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; the Society of Petroleum Engineers; the Society of Plastics Engineers; and the Materials Research Society.