Honors Student Finds Global Opportunities

June 30, 2011

A childhood fascination with soap led Laura-Ann Chin from her Malaysian homeland to The University of Arizona, then on to Germany and Slovakia.

The UA chemical engineering undergraduate said, “As a kid I was always fascinated with how soap works. I wondered why soap removed oil from your hands. I was just so fascinated with soap and water.”

The Malaysian-Chinese Chin was very good at science and math, but couldn’t see herself doing hard-core chemistry. After moving to Tucson to live with her aunt and uncle, she discovered chemical engineering at The University of Arizona. “It’s creative, fascinating, versatile, exciting yet very rewarding,” she said.

On campus, she’s involved in research on the effects of estrogen from birth control pills in treated wastewater. Not all the estrogen is filtered out. “What it’s done is disrupt aquatic life,” she said, causing sexual changes in fish. “It’s disturbing to see how we human beings can modify nature – but at the same time it’s so intriguing.”

Off campus, she also has an internship with the global engineering firm leading the $200 million upgrade for Tucson’s wastewater system. “I’m learning so much – reading professional design drawings, critiquing project management plans, corresponding with design professionals.”

Last summer she went to Germany on scholarship to study the genetic stability of E. coli bacteria at a renowned research institute. Chin said “I was so excited about getting my hands on international research.” She also “fell in love with the culture, the people and the language. In Malaysia I grew up bilingual, so this was my first time learning a new language. I picked it up very quickly and am still speaking German and taking German in Tucson.”

After visiting her parents in Malaysia, she’ll spend the fall semester in Bratislava, Slovakia, participating in a program recommended by the UA Dean of Engineering. “I’m definitely looking forward to learning a new language,” she said. She’ll work on a research project that is “at the heart of my passion,” combining both chemical and environmental engineering.

The hyper-energetic effervescent Honors College scholar is involved in numerous campus activities – from leading a chemical car project to serving as vice president of the Society of Women Engineers and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

She’s also a peer integrator – introducing high school girls to engineering. “We do so many fun things – like make our own lip gloss from all-natural ingredients. It’s so cool. Then we bring the students to class to get a real feel of what college life is,” she said.

“I do all this because it makes me so happy. It adds balance to my life and gives me a break from all the homework I do every day.”

Chin came to Tucson to finish high school, living with her aunt and uncle and working in their Malaysian restaurant. “My parents believed I should get a head start with the American education system.” She admitted it wasn’t easy for an only child to leave her parents, move to a new country and adapt to a totally different lifestyle.

“I’ve made some important decisions at a very young age,” she said. “Change is not always bad. Change makes me a stronger person.”

And what did she learn about soap? “In simple language, soap is a type of salt which has two ends to the molecule. One end is used to stick to the oil and the other end is used to stick to water. Together they work as a team to remove oil with the help of water.” The scientific explanation is much more complicated.

Link to Honors College & Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program

Link to Division of International Affairs

Link to College of Engineering