KINGSTON, R.I. – May 9, 2016 – A conversation with her father, a visit to the University of Rhode Island and a welcoming French program at the University changed the life of Mystic, Conn. resident Kelsey Conahan.
“I originally wanted to be a teacher, but couldn’t decide if I should focus on math or chemistry,” said the graduate of Fitch High School in Groton. “But my dad talked with me about engineering, and I listened to what he said.”
Initially, URI wasn’t even in the running, with Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell among her top choices of schools that had accepted her. She wasn’t interested in URI’s open house, but then things failed to fall into place at those other schools.
“So I visited URI, and I fell in love with the campus, and this was it,” said Conahan, who will graduate May 22 from URI’s renowned 5-year International Engineering Program with a bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and French. “I picked URI because of its ocean engineering program, but I fell in love with chemical engineering.”
She also found that she could excel in a foreign language.
“I was horrible in French in high school, but it was so welcoming here, and my French professor, JoAnn Hammadou-Sullivan, just convinced me to keep going. Next thing I knew I was a Student Ambassador for the French program, during which I ran movie nights and other events to help students from France get acclimated to URI.”
As part of the International Engineering Program, Conahan studied at the Universite’ de Technologie de Compiegne in France in the fall of 2014, and she completed a six-month internship at MedinCell in Jacou, France, during which she worked on processes to improve efficiency and safety and safer dosing procedure in the area of drug delivery.
“I loved working there,” said the URI French Mentor and URI Student Admission representative. “I was able to live on the Mediterranean, as well as an hour outside of Paris. I had the best of both worlds. I traveled so much, and I miss it.”
But Conahan might be able to return because one of the companies interested in her would have her work in Paris for six months and six months in her hometown.
“That would be great because I would love to use my French and engineering skills.”
While she came to URI interested in ocean engineering, Conahan’s focus is now materials engineering, including the safety aspect of that discipline.
“I like working with polymers and metals in material science,” Conhan said. “I finished a corrosions class this semester and wrote a term paper about corrosion on boats caused by barnacles. It was so amazing. I could not have planned my college experience any better.”
As part of that experience, Conahan was an undergraduate research assistant in URI’s Department of Chemical Engineering where she worked on “Carbon-Based Renewable Hydrogel Nanocomposites for Water Purification” under the guidance of Assistant Professor Samantha Meenach.
She said hydrogels are used in the textile industry to pull blue dyes out of the water during the blue jeans manufacturing process. She said the goal is to use hydrogels to purify wastewater. She presented her findings at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Regional Conference this year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as well as the URI Chemical Engineering Symposium where she won first place for the undergraduate division.
Conahan was a member of URI’s chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers for five years, serving as secretary from 2013 through 2014, and being named Junior Member of the Year in 2014.
But engineering, French and traveling to France weren’t the only things on Conahan’s URI agenda.
She was a member of URI’s vaunted sailing team from 2011 through 2014, a team that is now ranked first in the country for women.
“I founded our sailing team in high school,” said the head instructor at Shennecossett Yacht Club, “so I was so excited to join the URI team. I am still friends with some of the team members. People want to go to URI to sail, and it’s really cool that we can compete on a national level.”
So what is Conahan, who tutored a French student while abroad and who translated user and safety manuals from English to French for an energy company, going to miss most about URI?
“Oh, I am going to miss everything. I am going to miss the community because I have gotten very close to my chemical engineering professors and French professors. Chemical engineering is very small, and so we really become close.”
She also paid tribute to her parents. “My parents are my biggest supporters, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I don’t think they know how much they mean to me. When I called my mom, she was ecstatic that I was being interviewed for this story.”
URI photo by Nora Lewis