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Campus & Community

A Drexel University PhD Reflects on Five Years in the Lab and on the Board

By: Ben Seal

June 1, 2017

Katie Van Aken

As Katie Van Aken, PhD, was preparing two weeks ago to defend her dissertation on materials for energy storage, she thought about what her mother recalled of her own defense years earlier. It was stressful being alone in the room with only the dissertation committee, her mother remembered, and it resulted in an experience “to forget.” Van Aken didn’t want that for herself. So, to celebrate the end of five years of research in the Drexel University College of Engineering, she invited everyone she knew to attend her defense.

Music was playing as dozens of Van Aken’s friends, family and Drexel colleagues entered the room. Her presentation was followed by snacks and champagne. All in all, it was a day to remember.

“I tried to change the way my department thinks about the defense,” said Van Aken, a member of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “Instead of an intimidating presentation, I wanted it to be more of a culminating capstone event.”

For Van Aken, the dissertation defense was one of the final acts in a busy five years at Drexel, during which she’s served as vice president of academic affairs for the Graduate Student Association, received a slew of awards and fellowships from Drexel and beyond, and even found time to coach the women’s club soccer team. At Graduate Student Day, she received the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Promise Award, and in two weeks she’ll be speaking on behalf of all Drexel’s graduate students at the Universitywide commencement at Citizens Bank Park. Her time will be limited, but she has a lot she’d like to say to her classmates and those to come.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned at Drexel is that being able to communicate your discovery and what you’re passionate about is just as important as what you do in the lab,” said Van Aken. “If I can’t explain why what I do in the lab is meaningful, the opportunity to go beyond the lab is restricted.”

She also feels strongly, as her time at Drexel comes to an end, that the “Ambition Can’t Wait” campaign is an accurate representation of the spirit of her fellow Dragons and the energy graduates should be taking out into the world beyond campus.

“Now is the time when ambition shouldn’t wait, because we need to take charge and do our part to improve the world,” said Van Aken.

During her time at Drexel, Van Aken often acted on that instinct, most notably in the design and organization of the Emerging Graduate Scholars Conference, which brought back to campus a research-focused event for Dragons to show off their work and practice their presentation skills. Along with Valerie Tutwiler — a graduate student in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, and the GSA’s vice president of student life — Van Aken helped to reinvent the research conference after several years without one. The revamped version was nearly entirely organized and run by graduate students, who submitted their research, reviewed the submissions, selected those to present and moderated the day’s events. The heavy student involvement was a point of pride, she said.

“It was rewarding for me to see students come together to make something like that happen,” said Van Aken. “We had a lot of help from the Graduate College, for sure, but we couldn’t have done it without all of those students. They really came through for us.”

As Van Aken prepares to leave Drexel and head out into the real world, she wants the students who come after to have a similar experience, whether that means a continuation of the successful research conference or an improvement in academic and student life. The GSA recently conducted elections for its new board members, and she noticed herself becoming surprisingly passionate about those who will follow in her wake.

“I found myself wanting to leave Drexel in good hands,” said Van Aken. “I had a great experience here, and I want everyone to feel that way.”