Paul Dauenhauer (BSChE ’04)
Lanny and Charlotte Schmidt Professor, chemical engineering and materials science, University of Minnesota
We are honoring Paul as a chemical engineer whose ingenious catalytic processes have revolutionized biomass use and led to three startup companies that put his inventions into practice.
How did your experience in the College of Engineering shape your career path?
It changed everything. When I started, I did not know the difference between chemistry and chemical engineering. But when I found out what chemical engineering was, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I grew up in Wisconsin Rapids. They have mostly one industry, which is papermaking. Now there’s a big interest in what else we could do with trees and forestry products besides make paper. I had never thought of the connection between the chemical industry, the fuels industry and forest products until I was at Wisconsin. That completely changed my thinking, because once you see an example of one alternative renewably sourced molecule, you ask why don’t we go after everything? Why don’t we make the forestry products of northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota the source for carbon for everything we do? When I went to graduate school, that’s what I sought out.
At what point did you know you wanted to go into academia?
When I went to graduate school, I didn’t really know what I would end up doing. I knew I liked research. And I liked working on these sustainability problems. But probably about halfway through, I realized that there were so many problems I wanted to work on, that I wanted to be a lifelong academic. I worked at Dow Chemical for a year, where I learned a lot about process technology, economics and business development. This insight is what I wanted to transfer back into academia to be a successful engineer.
Are there any memories that stand out from your time here?
I was in the marching band at Wisconsin, and we got to perform at every home game. The fun thing about a football Saturday was that there was practice for the football team in the morning. But the marching band gets there ahead of time, around four in the morning. Even before that marching band practice, my group of five or six band members would get together and play flag football in Camp Randall Stadium. Back then you could show up at three in the morning and play football on the astroturf and eat donuts, after which was a long day of fun gameday events.
Anyone you’d like to mention?
My wife’s name is Kendra. She did her undergraduate at Wisconsin in zoology and her veterinary degree there at Wisconsin. And my daughter is Eleanor; she’s a fifth-grader.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
The other thing that had a big impact on me in undergrad was the intern and co-op program. I did an internship and a co-op with Cargill, and both of those opened my eyes to real-world experience.You gain a lot of knowledge about how industry works, management structure, how they operate, what they’re focused on, their metrics, etc. It’s a very effective way to learn something quickly. I did undergraduate research, also, so I got a feel for all of these different areas. There are so many opportunities on a university campus!