Solving problems through the lens of sustainability

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

To think, it all started with a little competition and some cheese.

In high school, Dylan Ellis competed in the nationally recognized Science Olympiad — a competition that paved a path for this learner's journey at Arizona State University, and his pursuit in chemical engineering. During this competition, Ellis and his partner characterized and extruded cheese — a memorable process that left him wanting to know more about materials science and its relation to chemical engineering. He immediately started doing research. 

“When I saw how well-equipped the field was to solve our biggest problems in sustainability and medicine, and how it combined all my interests of biology, chemistry, design and business, I knew it would be the best choice for me,” Ellis told ASU News.

This spring, Ellis, whose hometown is Fort Collins, Colorado, is graduating as a chemical engineer from the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is also a student at Barrett, The Honors College and the director of Changemaker Central — a student-led initiative that encourages the ASU community to drive social change.

Among his many accolades, Ellis was a New American University Scholar – National Merit Finalist and an American Slovenian Education Foundation fellow to Slovenia. He received a number of scholarships, including Chapel of the Flowers Scholarship, Slovenian Women's Union Scholarship and the Slovenian Union of America Scholarship. Ellis also received Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative funding twice, to research work aimed at advancing sustainability.

This impressive scholar’s journey at ASU is far from over. Next year, he plans to pursue his master’s degree in chemical engineering, working on a thesis to metabolically engineer bacteria for the sustainable reutilization of waste and biosynthesis of valuable products. After that, he plans to take his skills to the biotech industry in hopes of making a positive impact on the environment and human health.

In his own words, Ellis explains his experience at ASU and shares his wisdom with future students.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: ASU drilled the concept of sustainability into my perspective. At both Changemaker Central and in chemical engineering, I learned that in order to make lasting change, the solution must be novel and self-sustaining. Solutions now must not compromise the future. Because of ASU, I now thankfully view every problem through a lens of sustainability.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the energy. The word gets thrown around a lot, but I do think it is meaningful that we consistently place No. 1 in innovation — we have so many resources, expert faculty and cutting-edge activity going on. I knew coming here would help me grow and prepare me to make an impact.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Arul Varman taught me how to be an effective researcher and how vital having a good community is to success and happiness.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I would urge students to be strategic and listen to themselves. College is a time of exploration and self-discovery, but a frequent problem I encountered was spending time doing things out of obligation or that I think I "should" do rather than what I want to do. Students owe it to themselves to make the most out of this exciting time by trying different things to find what they enjoy and what will help them grow.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Changemaker Space in the (Memorial Union) was always my favorite spot — the atmosphere is always so lively and the community is amazing and inspiring.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would spend the money on efforts to close the loop on the circular economy. The buildup of waste is a huge problem our generation has to face, and technologies for breaking down and repurposing waste are in dire need in order to maintain the health of the environment and society.

Jimena Garrison
jgarris6@asu.edu