Organic chemistry looms large – and sometimes ominously – on the horizon of many an ambitious student, constituting a make or break moment for some on the road to medical or scientific careers. For senior Clayton Powell*, “Orgo” turned out to be a game-changer that propelled him in a new direction entirely.
Powell, who began at NJIT as a biomedical engineering major, became intrigued by the puzzle-like nature of chemistry in his tiny section of “Honors Orgo” sophomore year. The professor, William Skawinski, taught the course “exactly the way I like to learn – as a process, starting at the beginning and moving forward step by step. I loved it.” The two developed a close rapport.
“He’s blind and got to know me in class by my voice, and we ended up talking more and more about chemical engineering,” Powell recounts. “I ended up switching majors and I attribute that to him.”
The next stop on his journey is the master’s program at the century-old School of Chemical Engineering Practice at MIT, where he will learn to solve even larger, more complex puzzles, in diverse settings.
The program begins conventionally enough – in classrooms on the Cambridge, Mass. campus – but then opens up the second year into a series of five internships of six to eight weeks apiece in companies around the world, giving him the unique opportunity to see in rapid succession how diverse people – and company cultures – tackle problems.
The students are asked at the end of each internship to give feedback to the company, “to strive for impact,” as one corporate partner put it, while also “being sponges” while they are there. Internships, in companies such as Corning, Inc., are as far-flung as Australia and Ireland.
“I didn’t do a co-op while I was here, so this will be entirely new. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but also really exciting,” he notes of the internship rotations, which present students with problems that are not necessarily well-defined, and in need of quick thinking.
Powell says he’s ultimately interested in plant design, likely in the pharmaceutical or energy sector.
“I like the bigger picture aspect of it, and the idea of seeing something through from start to finish as you determine how to run a plant overall to produce particular products,” he says.
From the town of Stillwater, with fewer than 5,000 people, “and 200 people in my high school class – and that’s four towns in one,” Powell says he’s no fan of cities, but describes Cambridge as “an urban place that doesn’t feel urban.”
And wherever he goes, he will always carry along a bit of home: his trumpet.
A “huge band geek” in high school who venerated the versatile Maynard Ferguson and himself played simultaneously in a wind ensemble, a jazz band and the marching band, making it all the way to New Jersey’s all-state competition, Powell is now a key member of NJIT’s music community. Despite feeling under the weather last week, he managed to play in the annual wind ensemble concert, followed by a solo performance that same day of Taps at NJIT’s Memorial Day celebration.
“He could play in sleep,” an admiring friend recently observed.
Powell plans to find a band at MIT, and if not, right down the road at Harvard, where he will contribute a rare skill.
“Have you heard those squealy, wailing tones?” he asks. “Those are the high notes – and I can play them.”
*Clayton Powell is a member of the Albert Dorman Honors College