Being from Canada, Professor Melanie Hazlett honestly hadn't heard much of the University of Houston before she began searching for graduate school opportunities. However, it was her mentor Professor William Epling that led her to Texas.
“I was initially rather hesitant to move so far from home,” she said. “As it turned out, Professor Epling,” whom she had worked with in her undergrad at the University of Waterloo “had just accepted a position at UH and was moving his research lab there. Professor Epling talked to me about the programs at UH, and made it sound like a wonderful opportunity for me to grow and learn. The fact that I could continue my research and work with a professor that I was already comfortable working with eased many of my concerns about leaving home.”
Hazlett completed her Bachelor of Applied Science in Honours Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo in June 2012. She received her Doctor of Philosophy in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering in December 2016.
Hazlett said that on her first trip to UH for recruitment, she was impressed with how cohesive and welcoming the Chemical Engineering Department was and with the research being done by researchers in her field at UH.
“UH has a very strong reaction engineering and catalysis research foundation, through the great work of several professors in the department,” she said. “So, it was a perfect place for me to go to pursue my research interests. Looking back, I see my Ph.D. as a time of not only academic successes but great personal growth.”
Several family members – two grandparents, an uncle and her mother – are involved in the educational field, and as a result, Hazlett said it was always a career interest.
“Ever since I was young, I appreciated the important role that teachers play in society and I always enjoyed getting involved with teaching, whether it was working as a swim instructor through much of high school and my undergraduate career, or helping out in my mother’s classes, particularly helping with STEM education activities once I started studying engineering,” she said. “This passion for teaching was further fuelled through my experiences with the Future Faculty Program at UH, through which I was able to instruct two first year undergraduate courses. It is rare for PhD students to teach full courses, so this was a wonderful opportunity for me to develop my teaching practice.”
As Hazlett got deeper into her academic career, this caused her interest in pursuing research to deepen as well.
“Pushing the boundaries of knowledge, and understanding how and why things work, is fascinating,” she said. “Through the co-operative education program at Waterloo, I got to experience academic research and industrial research and development. I really enjoyed how in academic research, there is a lot of freedom to really dive into fundamental understanding. This passion for research continued and accelerated during my time at UH where I had the opportunity to take part in and present at many technical conferences and research symposia during my studies.”
Hazlett noted that the ability to attend conferences, to give poster presentations and speeches, were instrumental in her development as a future professor.
“These were excellent opportunities to learn new things, generate new ideas, and see things from different perspectives,” she said. “I would often return from these trips energized from getting new ideas to try in my own research and anxious to get back to the lab to conduct these experiments. I also developed useful skills from presenting at these conferences, like learning to communicate my research to different audiences and different conferences so that it is accessible and interesting. This is an incredible, transferable skill that is often overlooked.”
At UH, Hazlett had several mentors, chief among them Epling, who initially recruited her to UH. He now serves as Department Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Virginia, and still collaborates with his former colleagues on several grants.
“He was always friendly, kind and especially accommodating of my needs, and encouraged me to pursue different opportunities,” she said. “He knew both the U.S. and Canadian contexts and helped me adapt to the different environment, both culturally and literally – boy, Texas is hot! Since he knew I was interested in potentially pursuing an academic career back in Canada, he would support my conference travels to Canada, so I could keep in touch with the academic community back home.”
In addition to Epling, Hazlett identified four other professors at UH that helped her greatly during her studies.
“My Ph.D. co-supervisor was Professor Lars Grabow,” she said. “He provided great support, and I learned a lot from him over the years. Our collaborative work led to a patent, which I think really demonstrates the impact of our work together. On the social side, his happy and welcoming personality made the department feel very cohesive and like a home away from home.”
“Professor Jacinta Conrad was an excellent role model for me. She was incredibly open about her career trajectory, coming with a background in physics and transitioning into the Chemical Engineering department, and her struggles as a woman faculty member in STEM.”
“Professor Pradeep Sharma was a great mentor to me through the Future Faculty Program, providing very practical advice on the academic career path. It was through this program that I was able to teach my first course as a teaching practicum, mentored by Professor Fritz Claydon.”
“Finally, Professor Claydon was extremely supportive in my teaching, making it easier for me to balance my research and teaching through a strong teaching team in the Honors Engineering Program. I am very grateful for the opportunity to travel to the UK to learn and take part in youth STEM activities with his GK-12 team.”
Also while at UH, Hazlett continued to play music. She noted that some of the skills required for a musician – learning a new language of notes and rhythm, being part of a large team with a shared goal – had obvious parallels in engineering as well. An accomplished trumpet player, Hazlett has performed with the Toronto Concert Band, the Calgary Stampede Band of Outriders and UH's Marching Band, the Spirit of Houston.
“I was never part of a marching band before that, and so it was truly a unique experience for me,” she said. “I was very grateful that Professor Epling trusted me enough to balance my graduate studies and laboratory experiments with the time commitment required to be a part of the Spirit of Houston.”
Hazlett was hired as an Assistant Professor and started at Concordia University in Montreal in August 2020, and currently has her own lab with two doctoral students. She is always looking for new recruits – and they don’t need to know how to speak French. For future Ph.D. graduates, she urged them to be patient during the hiring process, especially for jobs in academia.
“I think the most important thing I can say to grads looking for faculty positions is to be patient and not get discouraged if you get rejected, or don’t hear anything back at all,” she said. “For instance, I applied for this position in November 2019, and did not have the first phone interview until April 2020, and then the second interview was in May. This wasn’t even one of my longer waits. New grads applying may not be aware of the amount of time to hear back about positions, and even if you are it can be a discouraging experience. Learning to be patient and appreciate how long it takes hiring committees to review all the applications, often hundreds for one position, is difficult. Related to this, is that if you apply to a position, and even in some cases if you interview, you may never get a response about whether your application is successful or not – learn to deal with this. Certainly, after several months pass, you may eventually have to take the hint. Most of the time you will not get a rejection e-mail - you will not hear anything at all. The trick is to not get discouraged and to keep improving your skills and keep applying to new positions as they come up.”