Student spotlight: Chetan Chilkunda

Lauren Smith

Dec 6, 2023

Chetan Chilkunda in front of his research poster.

A snowy afternoon on the track is one of senior Chetan Chilkunda's best experiences at Carnegie Mellon. "It was ice cold, and we were the only ones out there," Chilkunda remembers. He was working out with his good friend and former training partner from the varsity track team. "We took film of ourselves, to work on our start form. It was cool to be going full speed while it was snowing like crazy. I would never have imagined me, a kid from Oregon, doing that somewhere halfway across the country."

Throughout his life, Chilkunda has heard that his generation will have to fix our planet. "I chose chemical engineering as a field that can help me do something meaningful in this context," he says.

Chilkunda also thinks that the versatility of a chemical engineering degree prepares him for many different opportunities. With minors in both chemistry and computer science, he has found the university and the department to be very collaborative. He has sought out opportunities for both computational and experimental research.

More than complex fluids or creating a new learning module, it's the act of not having a right answer initially. It’s on me to figure it out. I like that independence.

Chetan Chilkunda, Undergraduate student, Chemical Engineering

In the complex fluids engineering lab, Chilkunda researches formulation development with John Kitchin and Bob Tilton. He uses design of experiments toward high-throughput surfactant experiments. His research attempts to answer the question, "Can we do what's currently being done in industry and in literature more efficiently?"

The process of formulation development is traditionally time- and data-intensive. "Companies like P&G test out many formulations to make laundry detergent and hair shampoo, for example, because those products have very different properties and materials," Chilkunda says.

He is working to make the process more efficient. "To do that, I use model-driven design of experiments, which takes the thermodynamic models as inspiration for how we should set up the experiment," he explains. He validates his work by performing the experiments in the lab, to see if he can get the same data in a much faster way.

Chetan Chilkunda stands next to his research poster.

Source: Joanne Beckwith Maddock

Chetan Chilkunda presented his research during the undergraduate research poster competition at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers annual meeting.

"Over the past year, I've been able to reproduce current soap systems and their respective properties. I can find the properties of a two-surfactant system in one week instead of a few months, in one 96-well plate," he says. Chilkunda is now looking at more complicated three-surfactant systems, which is what many laundry detergent and shampoo formulations have.

When Kitchin and Chilkunda shared their design of experiments work with Joanne Beckwith Maddock, another collaboration began. Beckwith teaches Transport Lab. "We used the experiments in the class as a medium to develop a lot of the tools for design of experiments," says Chilkunda.

He started two summers ago by running the experiments that students in Beckwith's course would normally run. Then, he developed code and algorithms to formulate a new setup of an experiment.

For example, in an experiment measuring unsteady state heat transfer rate via a conduction coefficient, students would take an object from a cold bath, put it into a heat bath, and measure the convection that takes place as it's going into equilibrium. "After I did that on my own," Chilkunda says, "we asked questions like, does where we place the object matter? Does the metal type or geometry matter?" Chilkunda used design of experiments to answer those questions.

Four adults stand and smile behind a large sign with the AIChE logo.

Source: Joanne Beckwith Maddock

Chetan Chilkunda (far left) and Joanne Beckwith Maddock (far right) at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers annual meeting.

From his summer work, Chilkunda helped Beckwith develop a design of experiments learning module for Transport Lab. They rolled it out in the spring, while he was enrolled in the course. Chilkunda and Beckwith are continuing to refine the module. She will teach it again this spring and gave a talk about it at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers annual meeting in November. Chilkunda received a Student Travel Fund award from the department to attend as well.

Last spring, Chilkunda was selected by faculty to receive the 2023 Dr. Gary Powers Memorial Scholarship in Chemical Engineering. The award recognized Chilkunda's hard work, perseverance, and enthusiasm for learning.

Looking ahead, Chilkunda wants to continue researching. "More than complex fluids or creating a new learning module, it's the act of not having a right answer initially. It's on me to figure it out. I like that independence," he says. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. after he graduates.