CBE Spotlight - Dr. Chris Coretsopoulos

By Ashley Long

Dr. Chris Coretsopoulos

“If you study something you’re scared of, you will find it isn’t as scary as it seems, and you will eventually become more interested in it.”

Professor of Instruction - Chemical and Biochemical Engineering

@ UI since 1993

Hometown Longmeadow, MA

Schools Attended (Alma Mater)

                BA in Biochemistry - University of Massachusetts Amherst - 1981

                PhD in Physical Chemistry - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - 1989

                Postdoc in Chemistry - Massachusetts Institute of Technology – 1992

What did you do before joining the Chemical Engineering department at Iowa?

I was in the chemistry department before I joined the engineering department. I was working with Professor Scranton, who is now our Dean, on photopolymerization.

Describe your role here at the university.

Right now, I teach several introductory classes such as an energy class, engineering problem solving, and a material science class. I am also in charge of the project’s lab for the College of Engineering that is over in the chemistry building. That is where the clubs build a lot of their projects there such as the Baha mobile from the Homecoming parade, a solar car, a formula car, an autonomous boat club, and a chemical engineering car.

What made you decide to go into chemistry/your career path?

I have always been a person that likes experimentation and hands-on things. Oh! I had a huge chemical lab in my basement when I was a kid, so I basically did everything from isolating bromine from simulated seawater by a chemical reaction where I bubbled chlorine gas to working on ways of polymerizing formaldehyde carbohydrates that you could potentially eat. I saw that the Russians had done that, and I became interested in it. The beauty of that is that you can take waste products from your metabolism and make carbohydrates.

My father worked for American Bosch and he was a diesel fuel injection guy so when I played at home, I had a surplus of fuel injection fittings to build water towers out of! In high school, we modified a dune buggy to be powered by a chainsaw engine and it went certainly over 50 miles per hour. I also worked as a teen volunteer at a Catholic hospital in town. Normally you would just help patients and visitors, but I convinced the head sister to let me work in the lab because I already knew a lot about the lab.  

Was it all self-taught?

Before college, it was all self-taught. Sometimes I would skip class in high school to work in the hospital lab!

Was there anyone who influenced you to go into your career path?

When I was growing up, I had a lot of engineers in my hometown. I grew up adjacent to people that were Apollo mission specialists and in my boy scout troop we had three Monsanto engineers. My best friend’s father was the plant manager of the Monsanto plant in Springfield Massachusetts and he later went on to become the head of agriculture and that was certainly an early influence.

My boy scout troop master gave us each a little piece of plastic with reflective illumination. I can remember growing up and seeing some of the first aluminized mylar reflective coatings when they were being developed for the space program.

Was would you say is your most memorable moment here at the university?

Several years ago, I realized that I was only teaching, and I wanted to do some research. So, I ended up asking a friend, professor Winston Chan, of mine if I could attend his class in the electrical engineering department. I started attending his microfabrication class. Pretty soon we started working on projects together. Winston, his students, and I would work on building devices and apparatus.

One of the neatest things was when myself, Winston Chan, and a retired professor named Jeff Smith would get together every Thursday at 5 pm and we were worked on a cystic fibrosis sensor. It was all after-hours work and we started off leaving at 7. Then it got to be by 9. Then by 11. Then by 1. By the end, we were leaving at 3 in the morning, so it was great!

If you could spend a day with anyone from any era, who would it be?

Probably Richard Feynman. He wrote the Feynman Lecture series on physics. He also played percussion and was a characteristic, wild guy that won the Nobel Prize. He was just so amazingly good at explaining the everyday phenomenon, not only technically well, but so clearly and perfectly. There is not a wasted word in any of his books.

What is your favorite TV show?

Historically, Nova would be the show! It has been a fantastic show for years! I watched it when I was in high school. They have that episode with Watson and Crick explaining DNA and at the time I was an undergrad in biochemistry, so I was just enthralled by it.

Name five of your favorite things

  • Spicy, tasty food
  • Jazz music and compositions
  • Visual items (Example: images and graphics from books)
  • Building as a hobby
  • Bicycling

Is there anything else you would want your students to know about you?

I would like them to think that they could come by my office and say hello and talk about what they are interested in. I have gone through multiple paths, not just the traditional way, so if people are interested in a mix of things, I would love to hear about it! I am also interested in art, music, science, engineering, and building things.

Dr. Chris Coretsopoulos in his Seamans Center office.