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Theodore Puls poses next to the chemical vapor deposition system
April 19, 2024

With job at leading semiconductor company waiting in the wings, chef overcomes obstacles and remains positive in quest to earn chemical engineering degree

Written By: Jason Daley

In 2018, Theodore Puls was living in Boulder, Colorado, working as the chef at a restaurant he helped design when he hit a rough patch. He was in the middle of a breakup with his partner. Then, he accidentally sliced the tendons in his middle finger, requiring surgery. During his long, painful recovery, he began thinking about his future. He decided to give up cooking and return home to Wisconsin. “I wanted to have more in my life,” he says. “I wanted to build a bigger, better future.”

Now, after overcoming more than a few struggles, Puls is on track to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2024. He already has a job lined up with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest computer chip maker, at its new plant in Arizona.

Puls grew up in Milwaukee, the second-oldest of six children. After graduating from high school in 2010, he attended culinary school. For eight years, he worked as a chef in Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver and Boulder. While he enjoyed the kitchen, he began to realize that the career was physically demanding and the future was always tenuous. So when his knife accident happened, it felt like a sign to switch tracks.

“It was not an easy time in my life. And I remember telling myself, I need to choose a path and stick to it the same way I chose to be a chef and stuck to it,” he says. “I thought about my skill set and thought chemistry would be a good route, but I also liked working with equipment, heating stuff up, and mixing stuff together. I found chemical engineering was the perfect intersection of my interests.”

Puls began taking courses at Front Range Community College, choosing many of the science and math prerequisites that he had skipped in high school. Soon, he got the good news; he’d been accepted as a transfer student at UW-Madison for the fall 2020 semester.

Puls says that starting his college journey during the COVID-19 pandemic and attending classes remotely was difficult, especially since he was without strong connections in Madison. But it also gave him the chance to really focus on his schoolwork. When he told his counselor he hoped to major in chemical engineering, one of the most challenging and selective majors at the university, she encouraged him to shoot for the stars, but also keep a couple of backup majors in mind.

He needn’t have worried. “At the end of my first year, I received a letter saying that I was accepted into the chemical engineering program due to a paper that I wrote for entrance and my academic performance at UW,” he says. “I currently have that acceptance letter framed in my room.”

One of the first courses Puls attended in person was an engineering thermodynamics class taught by Matt Gebbie, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering. Puls says he struggled in the class because it challenged him to think in ways he hadn’t before. But the difficulty pushed him to focus even more, which led him to a learning method he calls “overstanding.” Instead of just learning and reciting the material he was taught, he went beyond to truly understand and conceptualize the ideas.

“I applied that experience to the rest of my classes. And I found the more I used that mentality, the more my C’s turned into B’s and B’s into A’s,” he says. “And I started believing in myself—that I could actually be among these top-performing students I was in class with. I guess I always had a little bit of an inferiority complex, being someone who didn’t really follow the traditional path.”

As he found his academic groove, however, a personal tragedy struck. During the fall semester of his junior year, Puls’s younger brother, who had personal struggles, passed away from an overdose. While Puls was tempted to withdraw for the semester, he decided to continue on.

That was only possible, he says, because of the support of his instructors, including Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor Ross Swaney and Assistant Faculty Associate Katelyn Dahlke, as well as his engineering academic advisor Catherine Turng and mental health professional Chris Haas at University Health Services.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this or get through any of this my junior year without these people,” says Puls. “Looking back, I ask why didn’t I take time off. I just had to keep going. I know my brother would want to see me keep going forward. And I had to show the rest of my family that it’s horrible what we went through, but we could not let it destroy us, or fall into the same self-destructive patterns that brought us to that point.”

Soon after, Puls began as an undergraduate researcher in Gebbie’s lab, where he says he’s found his academic family. As an older student, he says he connects well with the graduate students in the lab and is often awed by the cutting-edge electrochemistry research he is helping to conduct.

At the spring 2024 engineering career fair, he submitted a resume to TSMC and was surprised to get a request for an interview. That turned into a job offer, and in July 2024, he will begin as a chemical vapor deposition process engineer at the company’s plant in Phoenix—drawing directly on skills he developed in Gebbie’s lab.

“It’s going to be a huge, huge change. Thinking back, five years ago I was washing dishes in the restaurant I managed,” Puls says. “There are so many places in my academic career where I could have given up: the loneliness of COVID, the loss of my brother, being on campus as an older student. But instead, I chose to focus on the positives, the things that keep me strong. I couldn’t have imagined this outcome, but I am so proud of where I’ve come from and where I’m going.”

Featured image caption: Puls poses next to the chemical vapor deposition system in CBE Assistant Professor Matt Gebbie’s lab. At his new job at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company in Phoenix, Puls will work with industrial versions of the machine. Credit: Joel Hallberg.