Published: April 15, 2019 By

Marc ThomsonAt the College of Engineering and Applied Science, it can be hard to stand out. Your peers are some of the best and brightest, and your faculty are world-class researchers, scientists and educators.

But graduating senior Marc Thomson has stood out in a big way, earning the title of Outstanding Graduate for the College of Engineering and Applied Science — an honorific awarded to only one student a semester.

Thomson not only thrived in a difficult major — chemical engineering — he picked up a second in applied math. He also managed to earn a stunning 3.98 GPA, all while participating in research and internships at world-class labs and being active in professional organizations and competitions.

Thomson took time out of his busy final-semester schedule to answer a few questions about his time here at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

You managed to not only survive, but thrive as a student with two very challenging majors. When did you decide you wanted to go the extra mile as a student here, and how did you maintain that commitment?

It actually happened quite naturally. I started just as a chemical engineer but found that I really enjoyed the applied math classes I was taking. The natural next step was to add a minor. I finished the minor, but wanted to take more math classes, so I added the major. The same thing happened again, and I ended up with an MS in math. Along the way, I also realized how useful applied math is in chemical engineering, which motivated me to push through the busy schedule. It also didn’t hurt that I loved the classes I was taking in both subjects.

How important was it for you to look for other opportunities to learn, grow and share with others outside of class?

Work outside the classroom is just as essential to education as traditional lectures. In a few months, I’ll graduate and get a diploma that I’ll represent with one or two lines on my resume. Everything else comes from the research, competition, clubs and internships I took part in while at CU. What sets anyone apart is the unique story and set of skills they build beyond their required classes. On a different note, trying out research or internships in college is a great way for a student to figure out their interests in a low-commitment manner.

Who made an impact on you during your time here?

The most impactful individual has been Professor Scot Douglass in the Herbst Program. I took two classes with Scot, and twice led recitations for him. Through these courses, I had to grapple deeply with who I am and what I want out of life. As a result, I become more intentional, more mindful, more open with those closest to me.

Scot, who runs the Engineering Honors Program, also demonstrated what a strong community looks like, with members supporting each other, working together, and being genuinely happy at each other’s success.

One of your focuses here has been on internships. How did CU Boulder prepare you to work with industry partners? How did that experience shape your perspective as a chemical engineer?

For my second internship with Honeywell UOP, my skills from applied math and chemical engineering transferred quite well, and I hit the ground running. This is not always the case; I was grossly unqualified for my first internship at Sandia National Labs. I, a chemical engineer and applied mathematician, worked on a mechanical engineering team doing mostly coding in a language I barely knew.

Nevertheless, I performed well because the curriculum had taught me to be adaptable in the face of challenge and to learn on my feet. This will surely be the case for many graduates who might not be asked to find the number of stages in a distillation column but will certainly be asked to solve complicated problems. Just in case, my education prepared me for both.

Your achievements are very impressive, but I’m sure they required a lot of hard work and commitment. What challenges did you face during your years here, and how did you overcome them?

My biggest challenge came senior year, with my thesis, design project, two math projects and a paper all due within a few weeks of each other. At this point, all the organizational skills in college came together, helping me to prioritize my time to most effectively tackle the work I needed to do. I also had to lean on my teams more than I had before. I did my share of the work, but I needed to trust my teammates without explicitly checking all their work. With a 300-page design report, a lot of trust is necessary.

Your nomination letter states that you wish to research algae-based biofuels. What attracts you to that subject?

If we can figure out how to efficiently farm biofuels from algae, it would go a long way toward fixing our energy concerns. If fully implemented, it would essentially turn petroleum fuels into a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source. Petroleum fuels have a lot of advantages over most other forms of fuel in that they pack high energy into relatively little mass/volume and can be readily transported. In addition, much of our industrial and personal equipment is already designed around petroleum fuels. It would be easiest to use existing infrastructure rather than swapping it out. Certainly, the technology is far away from the efficiency necessary to be profitable, but that just means that it’s the perfect time to get to work.

What other issues or problems would you like to tackle as you begin your career?

I’m interested in desulfurization of fuels. Until we find a good replacement for petroleum, the world will still be using vast quantities of fossil fuels, which contain sulfur, among other impurities. The release of sulfurous oxides into the atmosphere causes acid rain, which is environmentally disruptive. Regulatory standards are tightening around sulfur levels in fuels, meaning that research will have to be done to remove sulfur, often buried deep within molecules of fuel.

I dealt with this problem briefly at UOP, but I would love a chance to tackle it more deeply. I would also love a chance to work on capturing atmospheric carbon, but I don’t have a very strong background in that technology.

How can chemical and biological engineering make the world a better place?  How can the fields address the problems and issues of today and tomorrow?

Chemical engineering is inherently concerned with processes on a large scale, making it easy to have a big impact. Historically, seeing this impact is clear. For centuries, intellectuals worried about the human population growing beyond the planet’s capacity to feed them. This would have been a much bigger problem, had it not been for the Haber-Bosch process, which produces the synthetic fertilizer necessary for three-or-so billion people to eat. There easily are a dozen more large-scale impacts of chemical engineering.

In tackling the large-scale modern problems of energy, medicine and food, we’ll need to be able to maximize efficiency on a large scale. This is one of the core skills one gets from a chemical engineering education.

What advice would you give students just starting out as chemical engineers?

First of all, go to class. Chemical engineering is a challenging enough major if you keep pace with the material. You don’t want to have to catch up on material you missed in class. Also, pay attention in the applied math courses, especially differential equations. This may sound hollow coming from an applied mathematician, but it is extremely relevant to your chemical engineering education. This material will come up again and again from P-Chem to kinetics to design.

After graduation, Thomson will move to Houston to work with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering.