Brigham Young University undergraduate Josh Wilkerson used his in-depth knowledge of protein therapeutics to beat out students from Georgia Tech, Berkeley and other elite universities to recently win the nation’s top chemical engineering student honor.
Wilkerson is the first BYU student to finish No. 1 in the 30-year history of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AICHE) national competition, the largest and most prestigious chemical engineering contest in the country. BYU’s best finish prior to this year came in 2017 when student Connor Earl finished third overall.
“I went into the competition mostly wanting to gain experience presenting research but didn’t think I would win,” Wilkerson said. “It makes me really thankful for BYU and the opportunity we have to do focused research.”
Wilkerson’s winning presentation detailed his therapeutic proteins research, which makes therapeutics that treat cancer, arthritis, diabetes and vaccines more effective, accessible, and cost efficient. For the past two years, Wilkerson has been carrying out this research in the labs of chemical engineering professors Brad Bundy and Thomas Knotts.
Bundy’s lab is working to make expensive protein-based drugs much more affordable — in the range of $10 or less — with the hope of improving access to therapeutics for the world’s impoverished population. Meanwhile, Knotts’ lab has developed research simulations that are helping Bundy’s on-demand experimentation run much smoother. Wilkerson has been involved in both efforts and played a central role creating a simulation that helps streamline the protein-building process.
“The AICHE competition is extremely competitive,” Bundy said, who also competed as an undergraduate at BYU but did not place. Bundy went on to receive a masters and PhD from Stanford University. “It is really gratifying to see my students succeed much beyond my experience.”
As a junior this year, Wilkerson has published research in top-tier journal “New Biotechnology” and he is a co-author on two additional publications, all covering this protein therapeutic research.
In the future, Wilkerson plans on becoming a college professor.
“I love the idea of continuing to learn and discover new things through research,” Wilkerson said. “Being a professor would be the perfect blend of continuously learning new things and sharing that knowledge with those around me.”
Another honor for BYU chemical engineering program
Chemical engineering professor John Hedengren was also recently recognized by the AICHE, winning the prestigious Computing Practice Award. The award goes to a professor who demonstrates outstanding contributions in the application of chemical engineering to computing and systems technology.
Hedengren’s area of expertise is in process systems engineering, with application areas in systems biology, the oil and gas industry, smart grid optimization, UAV systems and nonlinear solver development.
Hedengren leads the Process Research and Intelligent Systems Modeling (PRISM) group at BYU.