From student to professor: Chemical engineer Stella Nickerson returns to BYU

Not too long ago, chemical engineering professor Stella Nickerson was a student herself. After graduating from BYU in 2012, and receiving her PhD from Arizona State University last year, Nickerson landed her dream job here at BYU. However, she didn’t think timing would work out as perfectly as it did.

Nickerson first became interested in chemical engineering while still in high school. Both her father and grandfather were chemical engineers, and so she took a chemistry class at her public magnet school in Mississippi. She enjoyed it so much that her dad suggested she go into chemical engineering.

That love for chemistry brought her to BYU, where she earned her BS in chemical engineering in 2012. Right before graduating, Nickerson began to think about acquiring a PhD. She admired the way that her professors supported her at BYU, and how they really cared about all of their students. This inspired her to pursue a teaching career.

“When I went off to get my PhD I actually did have a bit of a daydream in the back of my head of coming back and teaching here,” Nickerson said.

Her dream came true when she was a PhD student at Arizona State University. BYU chemical engineering professor Larry Baxter sent out an email to alumni about an open position in the department. Nickerson applied and landed the job. She has been working at BYU since December and stressed how grateful she is for this opportunity.

“It just seems like a gift, so I really want to make the most of it and to give back to the university and the department who gave me this opportunity,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson is making the most of it. She is currently working on two research projects. One of her projects is studying ionic liquid electrolytes for lithium ion batteries. For this, she and her graduate student are working on gathering data to apply for grants. Nickerson is also working on another research project studying molten salt reactors, which she is studying with several other professors.

In the future, Nickerson would like to expand her research into other interrelated subjects. She noted that studying ionic polymers such as poly-ionic liquids, electroactive polymers or polymer electrolytes would be interesting. 

“I’m interested in that because I just think it would give me a really stable trio of areas that are all sort of interrelated,” Nickerson said. “And so that’s all just part of building up a self-sustaining research program that can get funding.”

Nickerson is excited to be back at BYU as a professor. She mentioned that a lot of what she appreciated as a student is still here, such as the beautiful campus and supportive atmosphere. Nickerson said that she loves how focused the professors are on their students, as well as the support they provide to her.

“The university is very supportive of new faculty in a way I don’t think a lot of universities are,” she said.

Although Nickerson loves her job now, she did not always imagine herself going into teaching. After her junior year at BYU, she had a summer internship and was hoping to get an offer from the company to work there full-time after she graduated. However, the deadline passed and she did not receive an offer. This was a big disappointment for Nickerson, but it allowed her to explore other options. This was when she started to think about earning a PhD. She noted that earning a PhD was the right choice for her, and realized that she enjoys her work more as a professor than she would had she received an offer from her summer internship.

“I want them [students] to know that even if they have a setback that is very disappointing, and makes them feel very bad, if they keep the right perspective and they keep on, they might realize that this was the best for them anyway, and it is guiding them to what they really want to do.” 

Nickerson shared some of the reasons why she loves engineering. She said she loves the pursuit of pure scientific knowledge, and learning to understand the world and how it works. She also loves the opportunity she has to improve the world.

“I think it is the combination of practical problem solving to make the world a better place,” Nickerson said, explaining why she loves engineering.

Nickerson will be focusing on her research work for the summer, but looks forward to teaching again in the fall, when she will teach CH EN 170.


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