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Dec. 8, 2014

Chem Engineering students take first place in national competition

By Dan Levindofske

A team of Cleveland State University students took first place in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Student Design Competition — a national competition open to all 130 engineering departments in the country.

The student design competition is a prestigious contest judged by professional engineers in which the teams of students must formulate a solution to a problem presented to them.

The team, comprised of Zakaria Benmerzouga, Jeremy Miller and Andrew Zak, were tasked with creating an alternative methodology for the influenza vaccine, which has typically relied upon an egg to produce. The problem is that some people are allergic and unable to take the egg-based vaccine.

The Cleveland State team proposed a new cost-effective, cell-based solution to the problem, which was deemed to be the most effective solution by the judges.

Dr. Dhananjai Shah, faculty adviser to the team, said that only people who are committed can accomplish such a feat, as they were allowed no additional help with the solution.

“Working on this requires that you don’t get any help from any of the faculty, you don’t talk to any of the students, you don’t communicate with anybody,” Shah said. “It is all your own solution.”

Not only was the solution completely their own, but the team had only 36 days to design and submit the proposal instead of the 15 weeks within the semester that they would have had to do it for the capstone course in engineering.

What makes this win even more impressive is that it was the first time that Cleveland State entered the competition in the 33 years that Shah has been at the university.

“It is a big deal,” Shah said. “It is a national competition and, if you win, then it is a bragging right for the program that produces these winning entries.”

This competition victory not only shines a spotlight on the Washkewicz College of Engineering, but it also makes the faculty elated to have students from the college recognized for their excellence.

“You should have seen the happy faces all around the department when the announcement did come that these guys actually won first place,” Shah said.

Shah said he didn’t expect the team to place high, let alone win the entire competition.

“I would have been happy if they had just gotten an honorable mention, but they did an exceptional job,” Shah said. “They won, so we were all very delighted.”

The student team accepted the award for first-place along with a $200 cash prize at the AIChE Annual Meeting, which was held in Atlanta, Ga. from Nov. 16-21. The students also gave a presentation of their contest-winning solution at the meeting.

All of the students in the team graduated from the Washkewicz College of Engineering in May 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in Chemical Engineering. Both Benmerzouga and Zak are attending the masters program for Chemical Engineering at Cleveland State while Miller is employed as a process engineer at Saint-Gobain Crystals in Hiram, Ohio.