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Chemistry Grad’s Research, Begun at Seton Hill, Dedicated to Solving Real-World Problems

Matthew Kline graduated from Seton Hill with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2018. He continued his education at graduate school, where he studied chemical engineering. Matthew recently defended his dissertation at the University of Maine to become a Ph.D. During his time at Seton Hill, Matthew played on the basketball team and was a member of the Honors Program and the Chemistry Club. Matthew also served as a Griffin Guide, and developed research projects in both chemistry and biology. We talked to Matthew about his time at Seton Hill and how his involvement in on-campus activities helped prepare him for his doctorate degree and a career in research and development. 

What initially drew you to Seton Hill for your undergraduate degree? 

I wanted to play basketball in college, and going to a Division II school allowed me to focus on academics as well as athletics (instead of just athletics). I also wanted to attend a small school where I could interact with the faculty and other students in my classes, so the small class sizes at Seton Hill were beneficial. Additionally, I remember taking several campus tours and noticing how friendly and inviting everyone was.

How did you choose your major?

Originally, I wanted to study chemical engineering, but since that wasn’t offered at Seton Hill, I chose to major in chemistry instead. Majoring in chemistry also gave me more flexibility when it came time to look for jobs, as chemistry is applicable to more jobs than chemical engineering.

Can you tell me more about all of the many activities you were involved in at Seton Hill?

I was very busy during my time at Seton Hill, between playing basketball and majoring in chemistry - in addition to the other activities I did in my free time. I was also a Griffin Guide, a Student Ambassador, an Honors Program student, did chemistry and biology on-campus research, and I was active in the Chemistry Club. I viewed all of these activities as ways to potentially better myself and prepare myself for the future. For instance, performing research at Seton Hill showed me that I enjoyed doing research, and now I am happily doing research and development (R&D) for my job, which I enjoy.

Did those activities help prepare you for your current career? 

All of those activities showed me that I was interested in solving real-world issues. One of the research projects I designed at Seton Hill tested the effects of road salt deicers on both sycamore trees as well as grass. As we all know, the drive up to Seton Hill is lined with sycamore (London planetree) trees, and their preservation is important to our identity as Setonians. I distinctly remember the grass around campus dying every spring from over-salting, so my research looked at ways to minimize this, and I got the chance to present my findings to President Finger. 

Projects like this are the reason why I tackle real-world-applicable problems, because my research can have a positive impact on the world. For instance, the research I did for my doctorate focused on producing renewable fuels from trees, or my postdoctorate research on converting plastic waste into usable chemicals. 

"My catalytic process to produce diesel and jet fuel from our bio-oil is also in the process of being patented, and it is exciting to see my research come to fruition and to watch my process get scaled up!"

I know you just earned your PhD, but how did you first decide on a graduate school? 

During the summer between my junior and senior year at Seton Hill, I spent ten weeks doing research at the University of Maine and in Chile doing an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates). There, I worked on a project that took a bio-oil and converted it to diesel fuel using a commercially available catalyst. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to continue doing research at graduate school, so I spent my senior year applying to graduate programs in chemical engineering across the United States and I was accepted into several schools. Ultimately, I accepted a graduate research assistant position at the University of Maine. 

Can you tell me more about your research? 

To sum my research up into a nutshell, I worked on a process that converts biomass (wood, paper, banana peels, to name a few) into liquid transportation fuels. I designed metallic catalysts that can convert our renewable bio-oil into diesel and jet fuels that can be used instead of petroleum-derived fuels. 

At a more technical level, the research for my Master of Science degree was focused on designing inexpensive nickel catalysts that could hydrogenate diaromatic molecules, such as 2-methylnaphthalene. And for my Ph.D. dissertation, I designed platinum and iridium catalysts that performed selective ring opening (hydrodecyclization) reactions, which increased the cetane number of mono- and bicyclic compounds, such as decalin. 

Why were you interested in this research? 

I enjoyed my research because I got to work on a real-world solution to a problem. At UMaine, they were able to produce the bio-oil on a pilot scale but had been unsuccessful at upgrading the oil into fuel fractions. Using the catalysts I developed, they can now create different fuel fractions and can produce everything from light gasses to transportation fuels to asphalt, all from our bio-oil. My catalytic process to produce diesel and jet fuel from our bio-oil is also in the process of being patented, and it is exciting to see my research come to fruition and to watch my process get scaled up!

What’s the next step for you professionally? 

I had several job offers for after my graduation, but I decided to accept a postdoctoral researcher position at UMaine. There, I will be working with a major chemicals company working on a process to convert waste polyethylene/polypropylene plastic (like milk jugs and plastic bags) into monomers and other value-added chemicals. The postdoc position will be for a year, and then I will likely work for a chemicals company in research and development, but I have not ruled out going into academia as a professor.

Did Seton Hill’s status as an Apple Distinguished School affect your decision to come to Seton Hill?

Prior to Seton Hill, I had always used PCs, and I thought having to switch to a new operating system would be a nuisance. However, after seeing how convenient it was that everyone had the same technology, it made sharing information and working in groups on projects effortless. It was also fortunate that Seton Hill had the Tech Center on campus, as they were able to help when I had issues with my technology or needed to learn new software. After seeing how convenient it was to perform everyday tasks on the MacBook, I realize that I will probably always have a MacBook as my personal computer. The MacBook that I received at Seton Hill lasted through my graduate schooling as well, and I recently purchased a new MacBook Air, which shows how much I enjoy their functionality and ease of use.