Hanno Erythropel completed his PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2016. His thesis focused on designing, synthesizing and testing greener plasticizers. Today, he is an associate research scientist at Yale University, working on various Green Chemistry projects such as determining e-cigarette safety or reducing the environmental burden of pharmaceuticals.
Q: What do you value most about your time in the PhD?
From a scientific standpoint, I loved the interdisciplinary nature of my project which led me to learn a lot of new things. I came with a chemistry background but did my PhD in chemical engineering and also learned a lot about materials engineering. In addition, I was testing the biodegradability of the compounds I synthesized and tested, which taps into biology. This is what I mean by the highly interdisciplinary nature of my thesis. In the end, I think I can say that felt pretty comfortable about mastering the techniques I acquired.
The other side was moving to Montreal. I had lived abroad before, but never in such a big city, nor a city that was so bilingual. It was pretty cool. I would speak French at home at night and English during the day. I always joke that my French is rather colloquial as I learned it mainly during social interactions, while my English is rather professional as I used it mainly during work hours.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you throughout your PhD and what helped you to overcome them?
I think part of what was challenging was learning to write scientifically, because it’s something that I simply hadn’t mastered before. But I must say, I had really good mentorship from my supervisors who spent quite some time going over manuscripts, making edits—not just writing a few comments left and right, but really going through and editing so I could see what had been changed and get used to some of those standard ways of saying certain things. I was mentored by Profs. David Cooper, Milan Maric, Richard Leask, and Jim Nicell over the course of my studies at McGill.
In addition, motivation ultimately is a factor for many people as well, and it certainly has been for me, too. It actually ties in with the writing part, too. We went ahead and published something during my PhD relatively early on, so that was a motivator. It was nice to see something substantial coming out. An outsider might say “whether or not there’s a publication, who cares?” but it’s nice to have. Your name is on it and it’s official that you can actually do this thing. So it was a good motivational help.
Q: You mentioned your supervisors helped a lot with writing. What other roles did your supervisors play during your PhD?
They certainly helped not only with writing, but with science in general. How do you phrase research questions? How do you tackle them and how do you analyze data? They helped with a lot of those basic research skills.
Also, coming from Germany, I was used to interactions with professors being very formal: you would make an appointment with a secretary, show up on time and knock on the door, etc. In contrast, one of my first interactions at McGill—when I started, I think one of the first days—was both of my supervisors saying “why don’t we go over to Thompson house and have a beer and discuss your project?” I wasn’t used to that. Although it was professional, there was also a personal relationship, so if there were issues, we could discuss those too. For someone coming from a foreign country to Canada, it can be challenging, so that was certainly part of the help they provided.
I would also like to mention that while my supervisors naturally played a big role for me, so did the colleagues I was privileged to work with. With the McGill student body being as diverse as it is, I really enjoyed getting to know many people with all kinds of backgrounds and knowledge. That includes working directly with my fellow lab colleagues as well as the activities we ran through the grad student society in Chemical Engineering as well as university-wide.
Q: Did you have the chance to mentor students yourself during your PhD?
Basically every summer I got to supervise at least one undergraduate intern. That was another good thing I learned from my supervisors, actually. We would always make sure that interns had a project for themselves that could stand on its own. Of course, it would be related to some of the work I was doing, but it was a little independent project. It feels nicer when you have a clear question and outcome versus “I’m just going to help somebody for two months in the lab.”
I think most of my summer students got to co-author at least one manuscript because they did play a role in getting that work done. So that was a nice outcome for them not only for having their name on something but also because it’s important for their future career.
Q: What kind of financial support did you receive during your PhD?
I had a MEDA (McGill Engineering Doctoral Award) so I got a stipend and my tuition paid for. That was nice—of course— although, if I had done my PhD in Germany, I would have also been paid and I wouldn’t have had to pay tuition. So this was nice although I must say that I would not have done a PhD at McGill if I hadn’t received a tuition waiver and a stipend. During my second year, I was also so fortunate to get an FRQNT merit scholarship for foreign students. That was a nice recognition of my work and also meant getting a little more pay than with the MEDA.
Q: Are there connections between the work you’re doing now and what did in your PhD?
The plasticizer work I did at McGill was a rather specific application of green chemistry principles to one class of products. I was able to expand upon that here, thinking more broadly about green chemistry and green engineering. For example, together with a bigger team, we wrote a review paper on the achievements in the field 20 years after the first book on green chemistry came out. Montrealers will notice the nod to the city by looking at the total number of references in that article: 514. But then, of course, I also work on more specific projects here at Yale.
For example, I’ve been working on the question of what kinds of ingredients are commonly used in e-cigarettes, and how these may interact with one another. Spoiler alert: they can, and they do. When I came here, they had built a custom “vaping-machine” that could model someone vaping, and then collect the vapour that was generated. We can compare what’s in the liquid and what’s in the aerosol and compare the two. That’s obviously important—you can say all you want about what happens inside the liquid, but you also need to prove that it reaches the user. That work was then used to inform toxicology and physiological studies on these compounds and products at large.
Q: Is there anything about your PhD experience that I did not ask you about that you would like to share for this project? Any cool stories?
There is one really cool thing that happened. At FRQNT they are highlighting scientific publications from Quebec researchers once a month in three different fields (“jeune chercheur étoile”), to which I submitted one of my papers and won a prize. Part of the prize was a feature in the scientific magazine for kids called ‘Curium’. In every issue they would do a little story on the person who won that prize. Not only did they do a little interview, but they had a professional make a little comic out of my research! They did a really good job and I love this comic and still use it in presentations to date.
Q: One final question. If you go back to your younger self, is there something you wish you knew before starting your PhD?
Well, for the thesis, of course, I had to write a big literature review. When writing that, I was thinking “oh my God, the things I’m writing in here…” If I had known those things before I started the PhD, I would have done a few things differently. I guess that’s something that many people experience, I would assume, and that’s OK. I did what I could at the time and now I know more. But if I can give any advice to new PhD students: you will really benefit from a thorough literature review early on. And when I say thorough, I mean it: I actually went back to some articles from the 1950s that were only published in German (this is where my mother tongue came in handy).
Other than that, I really enjoyed my time in Montreal. I don’t think there are many better places to do a PhD. I would do that the same again, for sure.
Many thanks to Hanno for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find out more about Hannos work at Yale or find him on Linkedin. Also, check out the latest review in Science magazine on ‘Designing for a green chemistry future’, which Hanno co-authored along with Profs. Julie Zimmerman and Paul Anastas at Yale, and Prof. Walter Leitner at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.