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Naijia Hao sits on a large rock beside a stream in New Mexico.

McKinley Award Encourages Hao

By Adria Amos.

For Naijia Hao and countless others, the spring 2020 semester ended abruptly and without the usual fanfare and celebration typically associated with completing a PhD program. Hao didn’t even get to say goodbye to many of her friends and colleagues before she left Knoxville for New Mexico to begin a post-doctoral research associate position at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Little did she know, the department was planning a virtual celebration. Shortly after arriving in Los Alamos, she received a package reminding her of her accomplishments at UT.

“I received this award certificate in a very nice frame and a gift flash drive in my mailbox,” she said.

Hao was awarded the 2020 Jim and Sändra McKinley Outstanding Graduate Student Award, given annually to CBE graduate students who show a high degree of effort and hard work in their studies. She had been notified of the recognition prior to leaving campus, but the traditional presentation of the award at the department’s spring banquet was canceled due to the pandemic.

In his nomination letter, faculty advisor UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair Art Ragauskas said Hao excelled at formal classroom studies and had become a leader in her research in developing fundamental insight into biorefining biomass and solving some of the pressing issues surrounding the pyrolysis of biomass.

Ragauskas hoped the award would bolster her future research, writing, “I believe the [award] will provide her a great opportunity to further explore fundamental and applied sciences in renewable energy and environmental research areas.”

Hao said the award will do just that.

“When I slack or feel frustrated about my research, this award will remind me that I shouldn’t give up,” she added.

As a member of the Inorganic, Isotope, and Actinide Chemistry Group at LANL, her current research is focused on the synthesis of jet fuels from bio-derived molecules, not dissimilar to her biomass conversion research at UT.

The gift flash drive included with her award held another surprise for her. It contained a virtual commencement ceremony, during which animated versions of Department Head Bamin Khomami and Director of Graduate Studies Eric Boder congratulated CBE’s 2020 PhD graduates. Ragauskas even placed a doctoral hood over the head of an animated Hao.

I just can’t express how touched I was when I saw this. I want to say thank you to CBE department for all the support and encouragement.”

—Naijia Hao

Hao came to UT after she completed her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Dalian University of Technology in China in 2014. She was attracted to UT because of the financial aid provided to CBE graduate students, but she admitted she didn’t know much about Knoxville at the time she made her decision. Still, she doesn’t regret her choice.

“I know it was the right decision I have made,” she said. “I have had so many good memories here.”