Gill Professor Thomas Dziubla received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with honors from Purdue University and his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Drexel University. Due to his interest in medical research, Dr. Dziubla trained as a NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Environmental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania College of Medicine, where he developed two patents on the formation of polymeric nanocarriers for the delivery of antioxidant enzymes. In 2006, he joined the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Kentucky, and has served as the chair of the biopharmaceutical engineering track since arriving. He has actively developed contacts with the pharmaceutical industry to increase the job opportunities available to chemical engineering graduates. He has received research funding from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense for his research in the control of oxidative stress using novel antioxidant biomaterials. In 2011, he received the Kentucky Science Foundation Commercialization Award to translate these novel polymers that have the ability to improve wound healing, aid in tissue regeneration and inhibit antibiotic resistance emergence into a medical product.
Since joining UK, Dr. Dziubla has published 20 peer-reviewed papers, has two U.S. patents pending, graduated three Ph.D. students, mentored 12 graduate students and over 30 undergraduate students on research projects in his laboratory. In addition, he has been active in mentoring high school students on research projects, having published two peer-reviewed papers that included high school students. Dr. Dziubla is highly involved in multidisciplinary efforts on campus, participating in the engineering bioactive interfaces NSF/IGERT and NSF/REU programs as well as the Cancer Nanotechnology Training Center funded by the NIH/NCI, where Dr. Dziubla serves as part of the Mentoring and Development Committee. Recently, collaborating with the College of Dentistry, Dr. Dziubla has begun looking into how existing biomaterials can aid existing patients with chronic oral pain not treatable by current clinical practices.
Q: What are you researching and why does it matter?
T.D.: My area of research is biomaterials. A biomaterial is any physical material that comes in contact with the body or biological fluid, whether surgical tubing, dental implants, tissue engineering scaffolds or pharmaceutical pills—all are classified as biomaterials. The most important aspect of biomaterials is biocompatibility; we have to make sure they are beneficial and don’t cause harm to the body. Unfortunately, no material is perfect. Biomaterials can become cytotoxic, pro-inflammatory or carcinogenic. However, all of those reactions have a central underlying cause called oxidative stress—the generation of radical species that is highly reactive and can accumulate in the body.
So, if we know oxidative stress is implicated as the key mechanism for things like carcinogenesis, cytotoxicity and inflammation then, arguably, suppressing that process should be able to control or improve biocompatibility. One way to do that is to through antioxidants. The focus of my lab is taking natural antioxidants like green tea polyphenols and making them into degradable polymers. By their nature, those polymers would release antioxidants as they degrade. Rather than being inert, we are engineering the biomaterial to actually play an active role in improving biocompatibility.
Q: With what other faculty members, departments or colleges do you have opportunities to collaborate?
T.D.: UK is a vibrant center of collaboration. Within two weeks of arriving at UK in 2006, I got a knock on the door from David Puleo, director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering. We sat down and started talking about our respective research areas and, within a month, we had co-authored and submitted a grant together. It’s a very exciting environment. I get to collaborate with people in the College of Medicine, College of Pharmacy, College of Arts & Sciences as well as others within the College of Engineering. My lab develops new materials, so we are open to working with anyone who can take advantage of what we do.
Q: What is your involvement with the biopharmaceutical engineering track? What excites you about it?
T.D.: The biopharmaceutical engineering track takes advantage of one of the unique things about UK: a nationally renowned and top-tiered College of Pharmacy working in conjunction with a great engineering program. Through the biopharmaceutical engineering track, we can develop students who have a full chemical engineering degree but also understand the basics of pharmaceutics, drug manufacturing and delivery, and current issues in the pharmaceutical industry. When you tie all that together, we are able to release a workforce at the bachelor’s level that is very attractive to the pharmaceutical industry.
The pharmaceutical industry is in a state of flux right now. People hear about major pharmaceutical companies shrinking and laying off employees; what they don’t realize is that this is because of a shift in the way the pharmaceutical production is being handled. Large companies are not doing everything themselves anymore. They are subcontracting much of their work to contract manufacturers and that’s where the jobs are. As a result, Kentucky has attracted a lot of contracting manufacturers, such as Catalent in Winchester and Patheon in nearby Cincinnati, etc. The bottom line is that the pharmaceutical industry is both growing and remaining in the U.S.
Q: What do you wish all freshman students had in their toolboxes upon arrival?
T.D.: A sense of wonder that they don’t lose. If they come in interested and engaged, and maintain it, classes will be infinitely easier for them. The grade is a byproduct of what they should be getting, not the goal.
Q: How do you meaningfully involve undergraduate students in research?
T.D.: I was first exposed to the research process as an undergraduate at Purdue University. One day, I saw an intriguing poster done by a professor, Dr. Nicholas Peppas, and went in to talk with him. He was more than willing to let me work in his lab. As a result, I fell in love with the process. It was exciting to work on problems that had never been solved before; frustrating, too, because I learned why they still hadn’t been solved. When you’re on that edge, it gets addicting.
In my classes, I encourage that same exploration. If a student is interested, I will meet with them and help them figure out what they want to do. If it’s in my lab, that’s great; if it is in another area, I try to facilitate them getting involved elsewhere.
Our Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which brings students together from all universities across the country, is a great example of a collaborative research environment. A chemical engineering student can work with a faculty member in pharmaceutical sciences; or, a biomedical engineering student major might explore new areas with a chemist. It’s breadth of scope is what makes it great because, whatever a discipline’s formal definition may be, the barriers in science are artificial.
Q: How do you balance academic rigor with wanting students to succeed?
T.D.: I will start by saying, and my thermodynamics students can attest to this, that while I want them all to succeed, I do not decrease my expectations of them. I teach them at the level I think the material demands, not at a level that will give them easy answers. Sure, the material is challenging to digest but it is very important to our understanding of the world and worth the effort. I don’t believe in lowering bars; if students are challenged, they will rise to the challenge.
Now, how do I balance the rigor? I give as much of my time as possible to help them. I spend a lot of time with students who have questions or problems, in person and through email. I’m not unique, though; all of the chemical engineering faculty members are willing to go above and beyond to help the students succeed.
I also try to make sure flaws in my teaching aren’t hindering them from learning. Just as a grade is an assessment of a student’s performance, I provide ways for them to give feedback on my teaching performance. I will frequently give quizzes that are worth no points. Why? I want to measure their understanding and see if they are picking up material. Other times, I will send a questionnaire to ask what they like most about my class, what they like least and what they would change if they could. Their responses influence my teaching. I really want them to learn the material.
Q: Aside from the necessary classroom information, by the time students finish your class, what do you hope to have imparted to them?
T.D.: Critical thinking—more so than anything else. I tell my students often that knowledge is not compartmentalized. Science and engineering doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. What they learn in thermodynamics doesn’t just apply to what they are going to do in their jobs; it applies to what they are going to do in their lives. When we go through the laws of thermodynamics, I say, “Now that you know these laws, don’t just use them at work. Use them in life. If someone says something that doesn’t make scientific sense, call them on it. It’s your responsibility to protect from scams, charlatans and bad science.” Critical thinking is a big part of that.
Q: If you were starting a company, what would you pay a freshly graduated chemical engineer? Why—what are they able to do that make them worthy of that salary?
T.D.: (Laughs) Well, I am starting a company with Zach Hilt (W.T. Bryan Professorship in Engineering). We just formed a company based on our research, Bluegrass Advanced Materials, LLC., so that’s an interesting question. The starting salary for a chemical engineer is somewhere between $65,000-$75,000 annually. In order to get the best students, we would want to be competitive and, presuming the funds are there, we would probably pay around $70,000. I think that is appropriate for a process engineer fresh out of college.
As for what they can do, they are able to solve problems and avoid catastrophes. An investment in a good student is insurance against failures. A good chemical engineer has insight, is proactive in his/her thinking and isn’t going to simply cookbook it and retrofit a previous answer to a new problem. Rather, they will figure out exactly what the problem is, what the solution is and then apply the solution in the best possible way. To do that, you need a solid engineering foundation and critical thinking. A good engineering education provides both and makes graduates worthy of the money.
Q: If you could take a class from any of our other engineering professors, who would it be with and what would the subject be?
T.D.: One would be materials science professor John Balk on electromicroscopy and materials. I think he does outstanding work and would love to learn from him. I am also interested in the work being done by Fazleena Badurdeen and I.S. Jawahir in the Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing. Their work in the whole area of sustainable manufacturing and supply chains is becoming extremely important for manufacturing biomaterials. Eventually, I would like to incorporate some of their work into my research.
Q: Why do you teach at the University of Kentucky?
T.D.: It is very easy to fall in love with Kentucky—it’s a beautiful state. The city of Lexington is one of the most collegial environments I’ve studied or worked in, with a great community and a level of diversity that goes against a lot of stereotypes. At the state level, we’re doing a lot of things right to develop the students and grow industry, so I believe we have a bright future. I love the size of the university and the student body and, when you factor in the collaborative opportunities and ability to personally interact with the students, helping them when they need it, there are a lot of luxuries here at UK.