Published: May 8, 2020 By

Annika Lai earned the prestigious Colorado Engineering Council Silver Medal Award and shared Outstanding Undergraduate for Research honors with two other students from the College of Engineering and Applied Science. Three ChBE students—Adam Broerman, Dylan Tanner Mechling and Jacob Nielson—earned Outstanding Undergraduate for Academic Achievement Awards for maintaining 4.0 grade point averages as undergraduates.

Lai at the Estates Theatre in Prague

Annika Lai at the Estates Theatre in Prague

Lai's journey from basketball in Montana to top engineering honors at CU

Lai is a Boulder native who attended Fairview High School, but began her undergraduate journey at Montana State University as a Division I basketball player before transferring to CU Boulder. She decided early on in her academic career that she wanted a better balance of athletics and academics, and began to seek out research opportunities. After her sophomore year at Montana State, she transferred to CU Boulder and joined the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“I was interested in having the freedom to ask questions and then design a plan to solve them,” Lai said. “It is inspiring to work on solutions to problems that are the first of its kind and with unknown potential.”

She found that inspiration in Professor Al Weimer’s lab, where she conducted research for two years. Her time there presented a number of challenges that helped build her knowledge and confidence. After her first year in the lab, her graduate student mentor completed his PhD and moved on, leaving her to operate his reactor and collect data for various ongoing projects.

“Transitioning from working with guidance and supervision one day, to conducting research completely independently the next was intimidating,” Lai said. “However, through collaborating with the other graduate and undergraduate students in my lab, diligently reading materials online and meeting regularly with Dr. Weimer to discuss my work, I grew and learned probably at the fastest rate of any point during my time as an undergrad.”

As a senior, she was entrusted with the responsibility of composing the provisional patent application for a carbon capture technology, which she would present at the annual AIChE conference.

“This was an immense task, compiling all of the research and results while working and taking classes,” she said. “Through guidance from Dr. Weimer, graduate students in the lab and moral support from my senior design team, I was able to finish it by the deadline and learn a great deal in the process.”

Lai’s contributions to research in synthesizing carbon capture adsorbent materials, synthesis of fuel cell catalysts and lithium ion battery cathode materials led to multiple scientific paper publications—a rare achievement for undergraduates.

As a junior, Lai also found time to work as a classroom assistant at Arapahoe High School and tutor high school students in science and math. She spent one semester studying abroad at the National University of Singapore, and also served as an undergraduate course assistant for Separations and Mass Transfer and for Material and Energy Balances and Fluid Mechanics here at CU.

These accomplishments earned her the Outstanding Undergraduate for Research and Colorado Engineering Council Silver Medal awards.

“The Silver Medal Award is a great honor and significant reminder of the guidance and support my peers, mentors and professors have provided during my pursuit of an engineering degree,” Lai said. “It is a reminder of the community I have become a part of and of the challenges that have tested and ultimately strengthened my work ethic and commitment.”

Lai credits that community—including Professor Al Weimer, Senior Instructor Wendy Young, Tisone Professor Rob Davis, graduate student Wilson McNeary, her senior design group and her parents—with helping her achieve so much as a student.

“Annika is truly one of the very best undergraduate researchers that I have ever had in my research group,” Al Weimer said. “If she had elected to stay at CU, I would have accepted her into my lab in a heartbeat—that is the very best recommendation that I can provide.”

She will be attending Stanford University in the fall to pursue her PhD in chemical engineering, with a focus on materials engineering for alternative energy and sustainability.

Assistant Professor Adam Holewinski and Senior Instructor Wendy Young nominated Lai based upon a recommendation from Al Weimer.

Boerman, Mechling and Nielson share Outstanding Undergraduate for Academic Achievement honors

Broerman, Mechling, Nielson

Adam Broerman, Dylan Mechling and Jake Nielson

Three students in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering earned the Outstanding Undergraduate for Academic Achievement Award, graduating with 4.0 grade point averages. Adam Broerman, Dylan Tanner Mechling, and Jacob Nielson shared that distinct honor with eight other graduating seniors across the college.

“In each class I took, my goal was never to get an A, but rather to learn as much as I could,” Broerman said of his success. After graduation, he will be pursuing a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“I never really focused on trying to get a 4.0,” Mechling said. “I just tried to get the most out of each class that I’ve taken, and it just sort of happened. The biggest thing is that I came into all these classes knowing they’d be really challenging and just did my best to stay on top of all of the work.” He plans to attend medical school in the fall of 2021.

“I achieved a 4.0 GPA in large part because of my support network,” Nielson said. “Surrounding myself with supportive friends and driven students helped me stay focused on school. Also, I made it a priority in each class I took to find out what I needed to do to be successful, and professors were always willing to help their students succeed.”