Generosity empowers graduate students to build bright futures

Hannah Pineault, Leah Ford, and Assoc. Prof. Nicholas Brunelli
Doctoral students Hannah Pineault, Leah Ford, and Assoc. Prof. Nicholas Brunelli

Realizing your full potential can be a bit easier when you have someone in your corner who already sees it. Just ask doctoral student Leah Ford.

The chemical engineering PhD candidate didn’t always have graduate school on her radar.

“I honestly didn't know that this was something I wanted to do until I was fortunate enough to have a lot of great people in my life that pushed me to do it. Most of my scientific journey has been people pushing me in the right direction,” she said.

Part of that helpful “push” came in the form of donor support. In 2020, Ford became the inaugural recipient of the Michael and Nanette Triplett Endowed Chemical Engineering Graduate Fellowship at The Ohio State University College of Engineering. It was the final nudge she needed.

Along with the financial assistance it provided, it gave Ford a confidence boost as well.

“The fellowship made me feel so supported in grad school before I even started, which was really incredible,” said the Cincinnati area native. “It made me feel like somebody was already rooting for me and believed in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself.”

The first-year fellowship allowed Ford to select the lab of her choice, which helps Ohio State recruit the best and brightest graduate students.

Ford chose to work alongside Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) Associate Professor Nick Brunelli in his Catalytic Material Design Group, where her work focuses on designing zeolites as catalysts for chemical reactions that are crucial for fine chemical production and biomass upgrading. The fellowship’s second recipient, Hannah Pineault, joined Brunelli’s lab in 2021, where she’s investigating novel methods to recycle plastics.

“When Dr. Brunelli emailed me that award letter, I was like ‘Oh wow, they believe in me. I have merit,’” said Pineault, who originally hails from Morgantown, West Virginia, but has resided in Ohio since she was an undergrad. “I’ve been able to get a head start on my research and have these opportunities that I wasn't expecting.”

Both first-generation college grads and Ohio natives, Michael Triplett and his wife Nanette Nardi Triplett established the fellowship to recruit PhD students to their alma mater to help engineers like Ford and Pineault create their own bright futures—for themselves and their communities.

“Meeting Hannah and Leah reaffirms why we endowed the graduate fellowship. They are extremely impressive young women,” said Michael Triplett (BS ’97, PhD ’04, chemical engineering). “The ability to attract outstanding graduate students from Ohio like them excites us for the future of the CBE program and the university.”

“We hope Hannah and Leah pursue their research with passion and excellence, adopt a mindset of ‘paying it forward,’ and propel our society forward in a manner consistent with Ohio State’s landgrant purpose,” added Nanette (BS ’97, chemical engineering; MBA ’02).

Thanks to their funding, both recipients have been able to attend various conferences, which they say is a vital component of their growth as researchers.

“Even if you’re just attending and not presenting at a conference—it's like you're a sponge, you don't even realize how much you're learning,” said Pineault, adding that those opportunities will help her form research collaborations within the university and at other institutions.

Both Hannah and Leah are active in campus leadership activities, serving on the department's Chemical Engineering Graduate Council (CEGC) as Vice President and Recruitment Officer, respectively. Hannah also worked to organize last fall's Graduate Research Symposium, a premier event for graduate students. Both Hannah and Leah served on the Chemical Hygiene Committee (ChyComm) for the Brunelli Laboratory, helping to earn their lab the department's ChyComm Award for Outstanding Laboratory Safety. Recently, Leah received a North American Catalysis Society (NACS) 2023 Kokes Travel Award to present her paper at the NAC biennial conference in Providence, RI this June.

Early investment in graduate education doesn’t just benefit graduate students themselves. It can have compounding effects on undergraduates, faculty, the department and the institution as a whole, according to Brunelli.

“Graduate students are essential yet often unknown members of the department,” he said. “We as professors may be the public face, but the graduate students are the ones that help to bring our vision of the future to reality through pushing the bounds of engineering and science into fascinating new directions.”

Doctoral students like Ford and Pineault are essential to fulfilling the College of Engineering’s teaching and research missions. As they progress through their programs, graduate students gain valuable skills that can fast-track their career trajectories. They also help bring discoveries to life and can prepare undergraduate engineering students to be the next generation of problem-solvers.

“As a professor, I always have an inkling of an exciting project that has great potential for advancement, but without financial support, a fledgling idea is difficult to launch,” Brunelli continued. “The talented students recruited by the Triplett Fellowship have opened new research directions for my group.”

The initial ideas that Ford and Pineault are pursuing are turning into exciting new research opportunities as Brunelli’s lab seeks to discover catalytic materials for sustainable chemical processes.

“In turn, I fully expect that the return on investment will be multi-fold as the current Triplett Fellows will help advance our research and recruit future students,” he added.

Both Ford and Pineault have been fortunate enough to meet the Tripletts and are grateful not only for the couple’s investment in their futures, but their genuine interest in their success—at Ohio State and beyond.

“They’ve been so willing to connect us with people that might be beneficial to us, or with different learning opportunities. They have so many ideas, and are so involved with their community, Ohio State, and developing Columbus as a city,” said Pineault. “It’s been very inspirational to learn about them, where they started, and what they're doing now.”

“They were very helpful in trying to help me figure out what I wanted to do next and how they could continue to help me succeed, even beyond grad school,” added Ford. “I truly appreciate all of the support—I can’t say thank you enough.”

-by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications