Catching up with Sami Khan

Sami KhanSami Khan (ChemE 1T1+PEY), an Assistant Professor in the School of Sustainable Energy Engineering at Simon Fraser University, discovered his passion for chemical engineering at an early age. Through this Q&A, Sami takes us on a journey through his undergraduate years at ChemE, recounting his most unforgettable moments and the people who shaped his perspective. And as he delves into his career after graduation, he reveals the major milestones and successes that have led him to where he is today.

What led to your decision to study chemical engineering?

I always had a fascination for chemistry growing up. Seeing turmeric change colour on hand soap got me curious about acid-base chemistry, and for the longest time in childhood, I wanted to be a chemist. In high school, I saw the TV show “How It’s Made” for the first time and I was blown away by how ordinary glass bottles around us could be manufactured at a scale of 1 million bottles/day from scratch, reacting sand and carbonates continuously. This solidified my decision to pursue chemical engineering.

What led you to choose chemical engineering at U of T?

When I was deciding between schools, I prioritized programs that had sustainability and environmental science infused within the core chemical engineering curriculum. ChemE at U of T stood out, as sustainability was addressed right in the first-year courses. The breadth of topics in the third and fourth year electives – modelling of environmental systems, pulp and paper engineering, advanced reactor design – also attracted me.  I reached out to students on the Chem Club website who candidly shared their positive experiences in ChemE both within and outside the classroom and encouraged me to apply.

Describe your ChemE journey?

My first and second years in ChemE were quite intense with the core engineering courses, but also very rewarding. Our cohort of approximately 100 students gelled together quite well. We made study groups and exchanged best practices on learning, which helped us navigate our foundational years. In my third year, I decided to pursue the newly-established Minor in Sustainable Energy and took elective courses in terrestrial energy systems and energy policy. I did a PEY internship between my third and fourth years at Ontario Power Generation, contributing to the integrated safety review for the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station refurbishment project. Following my internship, I participated in the DAAD-RISE program, which sponsored a research internship in Munich, Germany at the Institute for Water Chemistry. Coming back to U of T for my final year, I undertook an undergraduate thesis with the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” project team through ChemE’s Center for Global Engineering. My thesis was recognized by the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins through the Undergraduate Awards Program.

I actively participated in Chem Club throughout my undergrad – being the First Year Representative, then Manager of External Relations, followed by Vice Chair, and finally Chair in my final year.

What was your most memorable ChemE/Skule moment?

The one occasion I always cherish is the 25th annual Chemical Engineering Dinner in 2010. Alumni, faculty, staff, students all got together to celebrate this momentous milestone in a truly unified community spirit. Both undergrad and grad students teamed up to put together a fun video that showed the rollercoaster journey of ChemE students at U of T. This was the first commemorative video that was put together for the department, which has now become a tradition to my knowledge.

Who inspired you the most at ChemE/Skule?

The administrative and support staff at ChemE are superheroes. I was a departmental summer student assistant for two years in a row in 2008 and 2009, and intimately got to know all our staff members. I fondly remember “Spring Cleaning Day” where we rearranged and refurbished the thesis reading room. I also organized a Scavenger Hunt during the “Welcome to Skule” event.  Interacting with the staff daily was invaluable, I learned so much about effective recordkeeping, efforts to maintain a high degree of safety in Wallberg, and how to manage time and resources diligently. In my last year, I fondly remember dropping by Jen Hsu’s office almost daily and brainstorming how we can keep in touch with alumni better. Eleven years later I appreciate how far we have come with alumni outreach and kudos to the external relations office for all the efforts.

Describe your career path after graduating, including major career milestones.

After graduating, I worked as a Junior Metallurgist at Avalon Rare Metals. I monitored the operation of a pilot plant to extract rare earth metals from mineral concentrates. This project was a continuation of my fourth-year plant design project, and I enjoyed putting my ChemE hardhat on in the field.

My interest in the market for rare metals lead me to pursue a Masters in Technology and Policy Studies at MIT. I continued on to a PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT, studying ways to improve the efficiency of carbon capture and conversion processes. After finishing my PhD, I did a short stint in the federal government at Natural Resources Canada, advising the Chief Scientist on effective data management in the natural resources sector. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote many briefing notes for high-ranking ministers, often on a short notice of a couple of hours.

In September 2020 I started as an Assistant Professor in the School of Sustainable Energy Engineering at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, Canada leading a multidisciplinary team that aims to enhance the performance and longevity of sustainable energy systems through novel interfacial engineering approaches (surface morphology and surface chemistry of materials).

How does your education from ChemE relate to your work now? Are you applying what you’ve learned?

At SFU I have designed my own fourth-year elective class on Carbon Capture Engineering that includes fundamentals of process science applied to designing carbon capture systems – equipment sizing, heat transfer, process safety, process economics and hazard management. I also teach a graduate-level class on interfacial science that includes concepts I learned in my fourth-year electives in ChemE.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

The School of Sustainable Energy Engineering at SFU opened doors in 2019. Designing and teaching a new interdisciplinary curriculum dedicated to sustainable energy systems was exciting, but also challenging, as we were required to conform to the competency expectations and curriculum standards set by Engineers Canada. So when our program was recently fully accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board it was a major accomplishment for all of us.

I also consider being awarded the Action Canada fellowship as a major milestone in my professional career. As part of the program, we travelled to four provinces and territories across Canada, surveying trends in immigration in remote and urban communities. I was part of a team that authored a comprehensive white paper titled, Immigration in the Era of Remote Work: Challenges and Opportunities for Canada. We presented our findings including policy recommendations in Ottawa in March last year to relevant ministries in the government.

What advice would you give to current ChemE students?

Be sure to attend your professors’ office hours – try to aim for at least one session every week! Office hours are a priceless way to get to know your professor and clear doubts. Over time, you can build a camaraderie with professors and gain advice on career directions, tips on healthy work-life balance, how to navigate difficult professional situations and so much more! It is the best hack to amplify your learning experience.

Practice good note-taking during lectures and keep all your notes from classes. You never know when you may find them useful in future!

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