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September 11, 2020

Building bridges between graduate students and faculty in CBE

Written By: Jason Daley

A sixth-year PhD student in the lab of Paul A. Elfers, James A. Dumesic, and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Manos Mavrikakis, Ellen Murray, decided to pursue chemical engineering with a belief that it was a way to make difference in the world.

Ellen Murray
Ellen Murray

“I always thought that using some of the design principles that you see in nature would be a really fascinating way of designing renewable energy technology or new pharmaceuticals,” she says. “I like the idea of taking molecular design principles and doing something bigger.”

But Murray isn’t just interested in the impact she can make through her research (which involves first-principles modeling to evaluate and design better electrocatalysts and electronic materials, including deposition techniques for producing graphene nanoribbons).

Over the last few years, she’s advised the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and in the College of Engineering as an advocate for diversity and women in science. “I hope my research is just a small step in making the world a better place and I think making a better department is part of it,” she says.

During her second year at UW-Madison, Murray stepped up when the department asked her to join a committee dedicated to recruiting and supporting women in chemical and biological engineering. “At the time, there was this network of people wanting to be heard, but they were too nervous to say anything,” she says.

She was able be one of those voices, starting a conversation between graduate students and faculty. That helped everyone become more comfortable talking about issues of diversity and inclusivity.

Murray expanded her involvement in diversity issues, serving as a representative to the graduate student advisory council, where she’s worked on issues related to international students, students of color, sexuality and gender. She’s also participated in the College of Engineering’s education subcommittee, providing a graduate student’s perspective on the curriculum and what changes would be most helpful for incoming students.

Her involvement in diversity and inclusivity has taught her to step back and listen to everyone’s experience, and to let them know that people are interested in helping them find solutions to their challenges.

“I feel like everything always comes down to trying to find more effective ways of communicating the different experiences that everyone has in the department,” she says.

In her half decade as a student working in Engineering Hall, Murray says things have definitely changed. The number of female graduate students in CBE is way up. More and more graduate students are active on the graduate student committee, providing more varied perspectives. And faculty and graduate student representatives meet several times a semester to discuss diversity issues.

Though she will soon be graduating and moving on from UW-Madison, Murray thinks a focus on inclusivity is now part of the fabric of CBE. “I think if we as a department continue to talk about these sorts of issues and make sure how we feel about diversity issues is public knowledge, that will help move the needle and help us get to a place where we’re more representative,” she says.