Research and Impact

Chukwuka explores how coal can strengthen polymers

Between her love of data and her desire to innovate in environmental sustainability, chemical engineering Ph.D. student, Chiderah Jessica Chukwuka, found her niche researching the effects of coal as a filler to enhance the properties of phenolic resins. She will present her research at the Student Expo on April 7, 2022. 

“Phenolic resin is the base in several products we use in our everyday lives: the circuit boards in our laptops, the brake pads and clutches in our cars, kitchen tabletops and adhesives,” said Chukwuka. 

The ubiquity of phenolic resin demonstrates the significance of Chukwuka’s research. Additionally, most of the the world’s coal is used for energy generation, which produces harmful greenhouse gas emissions and coal byproducts. By strategizing new ways to use coal, Chukwuka hopes to develop more sustainable ways to improve polymers and the health and safety of the environment. 

“This study would advance research towards adapting the usage of coal-based products other than for energy generation,” said Chukwuka. 


While her passion for polymer research has always been clear, she did not follow this path without challenges. A major component of Chukwuka’s research requires that she collects and assesses quantitative data. According to her advisor, developing skills in Python, a coding language often used for data analysis, would be immensely helpful throughout her research.

“At the beginning, [learning Python] was a major hassle as I wasn’t fluent in any programming language prior. I began taking some online classes over summer break and I was practicing it frequently during the summer. I am not yet where I would like to be in my programming skills, but I can say that I have found a way to tackle this obstacle,” said Chukwuka. 

In addition to developing new skills to aid in her research, Chukwuka is not where she is without the guidance and support of her advisor, Damilola Daramola, assistant professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering and the assistant director for the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment. 

“I am inspired daily by his passion for research and his drive to achieve results. One of the first things I learned when I began working with him is to never be afraid to ask questions and to fail in order to succeed,” said Chukwuka. 

As she prepares for the Student Expo, Chukwuka has recognized that her hands-on experience in the lab will allow her research to help change the narrative around the harmful effects of coal. She has also recognized the value of collaboration, trial by error and exploring patterns in data. Perhaps most importantly, Chukwuka has been inspired by her research and her collaborators both professionally and personally.

“I am inspired to be the best version of a researcher, colleague, friend and sister that I can be,” finished Chukwuka.

April 7, 2022
Staff reports