Amer Al-Khouja (S 2013)
Undergraduate researcher, adventurous learner
Embracing His Inner Risk-Taker
Amer Al-Khouja isn’t afraid to take a chance on something, even if it means getting in a little over his head. Take dance, for example. Al-Khouja never danced a day in his life and had no desire to—until he attended Carnegie Mellon’s Dancer’s Symposium during his sophomore year. He thought it was the coolest thing and just had to try it out.
“It was a little intimidating walking in to the auditions for the first time and seeing people who had been dancing since they were two years old. And I’m like, ‘I’ve danced for zero years,’” said Al-Khouja, a junior chemistry major from Chicago.
He was accepted into the symposium, and he liked it so much that he’s dancing two dances in this year’s production.
“I never imagined myself on a stage. Never. But I love it. It’s one of the best parts of my week, going to practice and learning to dance,” he said.
Dance isn’t the only thing that he’s taken a chance on. He signed up for a graduate-level chemistry class—when he was a sophomore.
“I was so terrified,” he said. “It was really daunting. We had to read all of these journal articles, and some of it was chemistry that I hadn’t even explored yet.”
By the end of the class, Al-Khouja was able to hold his own with his classmates. Since that class, he has taken a few more graduate-level classes in addition to the courses required for his chemistry degree.
Al-Khouja’s penchant for exploring the leading edge of chemistry extends beyond the classroom. Sophomore year, he started working with Associate Professor Newell Washburn, who develops new materials for biomedical and technical applications. Al-Khouja is currently working with lignin, a polymer derived mainly from trees. He’s trying to incorporate it into synthetic polymers like polystyrene, which chemists create from carbon building blocks. The carbon source is usually oil, but Al-Khouja is trying to change that by using lignin as the carbon source.
In addition to his work in CMU’s labs, Al-Khouja has conducted research at the University of Illinois as a Snyder Scholar. There he worked on something called diversity oriented synthesis, which is a more efficient alternative to linear synthesis.
When he graduates, Al-Khouja plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, most likely with a focus on organic chemistry and pharmacology. Until then, he wants to keep taking chances—in and out of the classroom.