30 Days, 30 Grads: Uni alum as fluid as the compounds she worked on

30 Days, 30 Grads: Uni alum as fluid as the compounds she worked on

CHAMPAIGN — When Chelsea Edwards moved to Boston for college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she had to get used to a few things.

"It might have taken about a year to become comfortable with the faster-paced everything, and the fact that nobody says 'Hi' to anybody in the hallways unless they know them well. You don't look at strangers here," Edwards said. "It's bizarre when I come back to Champaign, and everybody looks you in the eye."

But now she has come to love Boston.

"Now that I have transitioned, I really love it," Edwards said.

Edwards attended Urbana's University Laboratory High School, which the chemical-engineering major said prepared her well for MIT, the school with the top-rated undergraduate engineering program on U.S. News & World Report's annual "Best Colleges" list.

"Uni encourages students to think for themselves," she said.

While there, Edwards was already doing impressive work, studying microfluidics with University of Illinois Professor Rashid Bashir.

His project was trying to come up with a diagnostic tool for HIV/AIDS.

"I was learning a lot, and he gave me great opportunities to contribute, even as a high school student," said Edwards, who will graduate next month.

At MIT, she has combined her experience in microfluidics with her interests in optical physics and chemical engineering to work with "cool new materials."

She has worked in MIT's Olsen lab, studying a material made from proteins that is extremely stretchy.

"It's very rare for the type of material I'm working with. My job is to figure out why this is," Edwards said.

She was also the first intern for LiquiGlide, which makes a nonstick coating. It received national attention a few years ago for its viral video showing ketchup sliding out of a bottle with ease.

"I was just curious how these technologies that are developed in labs actually become part of real industry and have real applications," Edwards said.

"I worked there after my sophomore year, and that summer, I also worked nights in the Olsen lab," she said. "It was a good summer."

By the following summer, she had received a Goldwater Scholarship and decided to "do something a bit more fun and explore the world," so she traveled to Europe to practice her French and work at a laboratory in Switzerland.

On top of all this, she competed on the club gymnastics team her freshman year and has been playing violin throughout college.

"I had some scholarships for music lessons, and then subsequently, I continued to play in chamber music ensembles the rest of my time as first violinist," Edwards said.

After she graduates, she'll head to the California Institute of Technology to get her doctorate in chemical engineering as part of a competitive national research fellowship with the Department of Defense.

"That should allow me to have more flexibility with the project I want to do when I'm there," Edwards said.

Her undergraduate officer in the chemical engineering department, Barry Johnston, predicts she'll do well there.

"She's thoroughly competent. She manages her time and resources well," he said. "She cranks out work of good quality and has been a real pleasure to have in class."

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