Even within the state’s flagship university, where the student experience often resembles that of a smaller institution, the School of Engineering and Applied Science prides itself on being a tight community of like-minded individuals. So it was that, well before finding and sticking with your pod became a thing, James Mullin (Engr ’21) hit upon his own support system there.
He quickly settled on a chemical engineering major. In the fall of his second year, he joined a research group led by Rachel Letteri, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. He serves on the executive board of Engineers Going Global, a student-run incubator that applies engineering principles to real-life problems to create sustainable solutions for local and international communities. Three of his four roommates are UVA engineering students. And he leads tours of Thornton Hall for prospective students.
As an undergraduate member of the Letteri Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, working alongside graduate students, Mullin is gaining valuable research experience. The lab’s work straddles the interface between medicine and engineering by combining synthetic polymers and peptides to produce adaptive (bio)materials. The research offers promising opportunities for new therapeutic strategies for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, among other applications.
“I enjoy the research side of things, doing the hands-on laboratory stuff, it’s all very interesting to me,” he said. "Last summer I was able to attend the University of Delaware with an internship through their Summer Scholars Program in the same type of field. They were doing drug delivery and cancer research and that was the turning moment when I thought, I want to go to grad school, this is really what I want to do.”
This summer, like so many students around the country, Mullin had to adjust his plans because of the pandemic. His internship through the UVA Center for Advanced Biomanufacturing, which is a part of the Engineering School and the School of Medicine, was moved online.
“The Letteri Lab received a grant to work on a project involving biomaterials that can be degraded by light,” Mullin said. “My work this summer is reading papers and doing research on the prior work. It's unfortunate that I couldn't be in the lab and do hands-on stuff, but it's nice to still be involved. I was lucky enough to be doing something that I enjoy, in the same kind of field.”
Mullin, who hails from Suffolk, Virginia, received the 2019-2020 Dona and Henry Oldfield Bicentennial Scholarship as part of his overall financial aid package. “It’s been a huge help,” he said. “There's no way I would have been able to cover the cost of attending without it. Last year I was able to cover all of my tuition expenses and cover my off-Grounds rent, which is one thing that's really nice about these scholarships.”
During his second year and for part of his third, Mullin worked part-time at the UVA student call center, Cavalier Connect. But his scholarship allowed him to dial back that job and focus on his schoolwork. “It enabled me to enjoy the UVA experience,” he said. “Obviously, it took a lot of strain off my parents. I have two younger brothers in high school, so to be able to tell them that rent’s covered, tuition’s covered, you don't have to worry about anything, that was really nice to be able to say.”
As Mullin’s fourth year unfolds, he’s looking ahead to graduate school, narrowing down his possible application options, and looking for the right program—one with the right mix of chemical engineering and biomedical research. Not having to worry about financing his final year at UVA helps. “Scholarships are super important because you have all these students, extremely bright, talented students, who want to come here and want to enjoy the University,” he said. “Having generous donors give that to them is really key.”