Recent University of Houston graduate Sheli Mauck’s passion for problem solving and all things STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) began as early as elementary school. As a child, she lived near a refinery and was fascinated by the inner workings of the nearby “metal city.” As she approached college, this passion manifested in her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the UH Cullen College of Engineering. During her final senior semester, Mauck was awarded the 2015 Outstanding Senior Thesis Award by the UH Honors College.
Mauck’s senior thesis, titled “Toughening Polylactide with Vegetable Oils,” explored methods to strengthen polylactide, which is a commercially-manufactured, biodegradable and renewable polymer. Polylactide has the potential to be a valuable alternative material for common applications that have traditionally relied on other synthetic, petroleum-derived plastics, such as food packaging and water bottles. However, its current applications are limited because the material is relatively brittle and lacks durability. The goal of Mauck’s thesis was to make a more durable, sustainable, biodegradable and renewable plastic by blending polylactide with vegetable oils and their derivatives.
The most exciting moment of discovery occurred during the final test of the novel polymer, she said. As Mauck ran the final blend through the testing process, she saw that the material actually exceeded her expectations in terms of strength and durability. Mauck said it felt like her entire year’s worth of research led to that moment of success.
“I shouted, cheered, and danced a little in my lab coat. It was a moment of such gratification," Mauck said.
Mauck worked alongside her faculty advisor, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Megan Robertson, to conduct this research. She credited Robertson and other Cullen College professors for their guidance and support throughout her academic career.
"I wouldn’t have made it without those who cared and gave me tough love when I needed it," she said.
As she prepares to enter the professional world to pursue a career in engineering, Mauck said she’s happy that she can look back on this award and “remember what’s important."
“This award represents my passion for engineering and it’s an accomplishment I can take with me. It was the perfect conclusion to my undergraduate life,” she said.