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Chemical engineering grad students stay connected while apart

GrACE logo

How can students maintain social ties in the age of social distancing? This was the challenge that the Graduate Association of Chemical Engineers (GrACE) decided to tackle this summer to keep its members connected and to improve morale and mental health in the department.

The group organized two events, including a department roundtable with Professor and Department Head Vikas Berry and Associate Professor Gang Cheng, which provided the students with updates about the department and ongoing issues related to COVID-19. The second event featured Vincent Adiutori from UIC’s Graduate College who gave a seminar on technical writing for STEM readers.

GrACE president and PhD student Sheldon Cotts organized both events with help from Research Assistant Professor Sanjay Behura. Cotts has received positive feedback from the students who attended the meetings, many of whom told him that it was great to be able to get together in both an educational and socially-distant setting that was not solely focused on their research.

“We have had more than a dozen students at both events, which has been really great to see,” Cotts said.

In addition to the learning and information sessions, the students made sure to carve out some time to let loose and have fun. The first event featured a competitive Disney-themed trivia game and a drawing for a gift card.

PhD student Aditya Prajapati joked that the gift card raffle was a major draw for him but added that he always learns something new at these meetings even if the topic is familiar.

“The social aspect of these events is another important aspect for me as I haven’t seen a lot of my friends and professors during this quarantine, and I was worried that they might be starting to forget what I look like,” Aditya said. “I have always considered talking to fellow grad friends as free therapy. We all have similar problems, and it is nice to see so much support from these folks.”

The second GrACE event featured a cooking class led by PhD student Sungjoon Kim, which he called “How to cook like a PhD.” For the class, Kim sent out the recipe with instructions on how to how to obtain the ingredients so his classmates could work along with him. The dish he picked was Dubu Jorim, which Kim described as tofu braised in a spicy, soy-sauce-based seasoning.

The experience gave Kim a newfound appreciation for all the work and effort that chiefs put into cooking shows.

“The cooking class was great as I got to share my love for Korean food with my friends,” Kim said. “I hope the series will continue in the future with dishes from different parts of the world.”

Cotts is planning on having more gatherings before the end of the summer, including another trivia night and a research presentation session. Students interested in learning more or attending a future event can contact Cotts at

“In times like these, it is important to consider one’s psychological wellbeing as well as physical,” Cotts said. “Not only can the pandemic take a toll on one’s health, but there is mental attrition that comes with social distancing, let alone quarantine. We as an association and department wanted to ensure that our student community stayed strong, connected, and cared for, and this is the least that we could do to help keep spirits up during a time of unprecedented adversity.”