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Kyuhyeok Choi, a undergraduate student, stands next to poster presentation.
February 5, 2024

Undergraduate Q&A: A Catalytic Success for Kyuhyeok Choi

Written By: Claire Massey

Following his attendance at the 2023 AIChE Annual Meeting and Student Conference (ASC), junior Kyuhyeok (Brian) Choi returned triumphantly, placing in the top three in the Undergraduate Student Poster Competition. His achievement is attributed to his innovative work on catalytic approaches to produce sorbic acid, a food preservative, from biomass. A highlight of the ASC, the poster competition has over 400 students and 100 judges, making it one of the largest opportunities for our engineering students to present their research and academic work to the larger community. 

Delving deeper into Choi’s journey in this Q&A session, we uncover more about the student behind the poster, his passion for engineering, and the details of his catalytic approaches.

Why did you choose to attend UW? 

First of all, I chose UW-Madison because of its renowned engineering program and research opportunities. On top of that, I spent my childhood in Madison when my dad was studying for his Ph.D. degree at UW-Madison. I had great memories as a child during my time in Wisconsin and it has already been 15 years since I came back to this university to pursue my degree. Finally, the vibrant campus community and collaborative atmosphere were also significant factors that aligned perfectly with my academic and career goals. 

What is your favorite class? 

Among the courses, one that truly captivated me was Physical Chemistry (CHEM 562) which I took in Spring 2023. This subject explained chemical phenomena through the lens of physics and mathematics—subjects that also deeply intrigue me. It not only enriched my grasp of chemistry but also ignited a newfound passion for the field. 

What made you decide to join the Huber Research Group? 

I was initially drawn to the Huber Research Group for its groundbreaking work in the catalysis and reaction engineering field. The Huber group’s commitment to addressing real-world challenges in sustainable energy and chemical production resonated with my academic interests as well as my aspiration of making a positive impact on society. Joining the group provided me with the opportunity to contribute to impactful research while learning from experts in the field. 

What made you interested in catalysis? 

I began to be interested in catalysis when I was taking organic chemistry and joined the Huber Research Group four semesters ago. Learning about the critical role of catalysts in chemical reactions during class and witnessing its potential in the research lab was what intrigued me and allowed me to think about the prospect of designing catalysts for cleaner and more efficient reactions. 

Please describe the poster you worked on and what you hope the results of your research will be? 

The poster I worked on focuses on the catalytic conversion of triacetic acid lactone (TAL) to potassium sorbate, which is a commonly used food preservative. TAL is a platform chemical that can be derived from biomass and has great potential to produce a variety of chemicals that are derived from petrochemicals. The proposed catalytic pathway was able to reach high yields of our target molecule and offer economic benefits compared to previous pathways. I hope that this research can contribute to the transition towards a more sustainable feedstock and inspire further exploration in this field.  

What are the other applications of the results of this research? In other words, knowing what you now know, how can this information be used for other things? 

The results of our research could have far-reaching applications beyond our target molecule, potassium sorbate. I believe our findings may contribute to discovering sustainable pathways for new potential target molecules. Additionally, the insights gained can ultimately inform the development of more efficient industrial processes, reduced environmental impact, and enhanced resource utilization.  

What other experiments have you done that you enjoy? 

Outside of the research lab, I enjoyed conducting organic synthesis experiments while I was taking the organic chemistry lab course. These experiments allowed me to gain a thorough understanding of how to analyze the data and an intuition for selecting analysis equipment. I believe that the numerous experiments conducted during that course have honed my skill set of analyzing data which especially came in handy in the research lab. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

I want to express my gratitude to Min Soo Kim (Ph.D. student mentor) and Prof. Huber for their guidance and support throughout my research journey. Being part of the ASC has been a highlight, and I am eager to continue contributing to the exciting developments in catalysis and reaction engineering. I look forward to exploring new opportunities for collaboration and learning within the vibrant academic community at UW-Madison.