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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Snowboarding enthusiast to graduate from URI as top chemical engineering student

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 12, 2006 -- University of Rhode Island senior Leah Octavio admits that when she enrolled at URI as a chemical engineering major, she didn’t know exactly what the discipline was all about. But she learned quickly and will graduate May 21 with the President’s Award for Student Excellence as the top student in the department.

Growing up in Penang, Malaysia, Octavio got hooked on chemistry because a teacher “made it interesting and really fun. He was awesome.”

At URI, she quickly turned that enthusiasm into success working on several complicated research projects. As a sophomore she received a grant to study the effects of various lighting schemes on growing a red algae that produces a valuable polysaccharide molecule that can be used for making biodegradable plastics.

“Different wave lengths and light intensities can affect the way the algae grows,” explained Octavio, who served as treasurer of the URI chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. “I tested the use of varying light intensity in a bioreactor and found that varying red and blue light together worked best.”

Octavio later worked on three research projects in the field of thermodynamics and computational chemical engineering in which mathematical models are developed and fit to data using computer algorithms. In one project she fit models to predict the outcome of multiple chemical reactions that might occur in a reactor that produces hydrogen.

“If you want to design a reactor to make hydrogen – for use in fuel cells, for instance – you first need to model how the reaction will proceed,” she said.

Octavio’s interests extend well beyond chemistry and engineering, though. She has earned a minor in microbiology and worked for two years at URI’s Academic Enhancement Center as a tutor for students needing help with math, physics or chemistry coursework.

Along the way, a classmate convinced Octavio to try snowboarding, and she quickly developed a knack and a love for the sport. “I went up to the mountains 12 times this semester and I really started to pick it up,” she said. “The first time I was on the bunny hill I was bruised and miserable from falling so much, but eventually I made it down the hill without falling and now I can do the blue trails and the black trails pretty easily. Next year I’m going to try the jumps.”

Following graduation, Octavio will enroll at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a doctoral program in computational and systems biology. “I’ll be looking at the big picture of biological organisms to see how all the enzymes work with each other. I’ll be trying to understand how all these processes work together.”