5 Questions for a Scientist: Civil Engineer and Inventor Elham Fini

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.

Get to know Ellie

Occupation: Co-Founder
Institution: Bio-Adhesive Alliance Inc.
Field: Civil engineering and materials science
Focus: Bio-adhesives

Elham "Ellie" Fini is co-founder of Bio-Adhesive Alliance Inc., which has developed a process to convert pig manure into a liquid asphalt-binding adhesive that is an eco-friendly, durable alternative to petroleum-based asphalt. She is also an associate professor, director of the sustainable infrastructure materials lab, and J. W. Fulbright Scholar at North Carolina A&T State University. 

Ellie, who received her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been a research affiliate at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering since 2011 and is currently serving as the associate editor of ASCE Journal of Materials. She has been actively fostering the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship within her campus and science community, including through work with the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation. Her achievements include being named a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador, winning the NSF CAREER award and the 2017 BEYA STEM Innovation award, and being nominated for the 2017 BioNight Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. You can reach Ellie through her university website.

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
I am a scientist working on delaying and/or reversing aging processes in materials like asphalt, polymers, glue, plastics, etc. I also make bio-based glues, and test them to see how they perform in real world conditions.

2. When did you first become interested in your field?
I was curious to know how properties of materials change due to various factors such as heat or UV ever since I was a child. As simple as how a raw egg becomes a soft-boiled egg when boiled in water, and becomes a hard-boiled egg just with a little more time in boiling water. As a child, I did not like hard-boiled eggs; but it was hard to control the reaction to get hard white and semi-soft yolk. Even missing a minute or two would be too late. I learned back then that the process is not reversible. I wanted to become a scientist to reverse irreversible processes not by traveling back in time, but by understanding and controlling the reaction mechanisms.

3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
Scientists are made to think out of the box, and challenge the status quo. They find joy not only in learning facts/news, but also creating them based on discovering/making new things which are not known yet!

4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
When I am working on a new science challenge, it becomes my new friend, it occupies a room in my brain, and I enjoy its company even at the dinner table. I share the questions and my plausible solutions with my colleagues, and continue reading and finding how similar challenges were addressed by others worldwide. This helps me determine if this is indeed an unsolved challenge, and come up with informed solutions.

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
Explore your solutions to a science challenge that you identified by NOT just dreaming about the solution, but by acting upon your dream. But before you act on your plan A, estimate the risk and have a plan B ready in your mind. Buckle up for the journey, you have to keep trying until you get to your plan x to see the dream come true! All I can say is, IT IS ALL WORTH IT!



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