McNair Scholar and Honors Chemical Engineering student Shihao Zhai hails from Newington, CT. Zhai wanted to use math and science to solve problems in the real world, and already in his four years at UConn he has researched whether low cost, portable particulate matter monitors are an effective way to measure local air pollution. Zhai looks forward to graduate school next year, and continuing to root for UConn basketball.
Why did you choose UConn?
I chose UConn because I wanted to be somewhere closer to home while still having access to a relatively large campus with plenty of research opportunities. Knowing that I wanted to major in Chemical Engineering and eventually go to graduate school, being able to perform undergraduate research was a big factor for me.
I come from a small town where most of my classmates are coming to UConn. Even though I was offered admission to several different institutions, ultimately UConn become the obvious choice for me after comparing my financial aid options.
What’s your major/field of study, and what drew you to it?
My major is Chemical Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. Initially when I was choosing my major, I was debating between Chemistry and Chemical Engineering because I was really passionate about Chemistry back in high school. I eventually decided to go to an open house for both programs at UConn, where I learned that chemists are mostly doing work on the lab (small) scale, while chemical engineers take that work and figure out how to scale it up. Eventually I decided on Chemical Engineering because it presents me with a wide variety of career options. I really liked the idea of integrating science and math into a design to apply in the real world.
What activities were you involved in as a student?
For the past four years, I have been heavily involved with Honors in STEM (HiSTEM) as well as the UConn chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). I started participating in both organizations my freshman year as a regular member and held different leadership positions throughout my college career. Ultimately, I become the president for both organizations. I also am the vice president of the Omega Chi Epsilon (OXE) Honor Society, member of the Tau Beta Pi (TBP) Honor Society, the Honors Program and the McNair Scholar Program. I was the Supplemental Instructor for the general chemistry sequence (CHEM 1127 & 1128) for the junior and senior year, and an undergraduate TA for CHEG 3124 – Heat and Mass Transfer my senior year. I participated in undergraduate research during all four years of my undergraduate career, accruing over 1000 hours. Outside of school, I enjoyed participating in Table Tennis Club’s weekly practices.
How has UConn prepared you for the next chapter in life?
As mentioned above, one of the biggest ways that UConn has prepared me for the next chapter in life is providing the opportunities for undergraduate research. Through research, I developed important “soft” skills such as how to make a good presentation, how to design a poster, and how to communicate efficiently and effectively, on top of gaining more knowledge about the academic field of interest. In addition, through many collaborative projects such as the Senior Design Project, I learned what professionalism means, and how to work with a team to achieve a set goal.
Any advice for incoming students?
Undergraduate is your time to explore! Definitely explore different majors and/or different interests that you have; do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone! Also remember to use your time effectively and make every minute count.
What’s one thing everyone should do during their time at UConn?
Go sledding down Horsebarn Hill! Or attending the women’s or men’s basketball.