Opportunity. Perseverance. Luck.

For James Owens, these words define his time at Virginia Tech.

The chemical engineering major from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, is now being honored as the College of Engineering’s 2020 Outstanding Senior. He is among four chemical engineering students to receive the award in the past eight years.

A member of the Virginia Tech Honors College, Owens knew early that he wanted to be involved in research. He approached chemical engineering assistant professor Michael Bortner during his first semester at Virginia Tech, emphasizing his strong desire to pursue polymer-based research. Owens joined Bortner's group and quickly gained the trust of each member while becoming involved in their projects.

As he dove into research, Owens discovered an interest in the practical challenge of implementing solar cells and conductive coatings. He endeavored to use his experience as a scientist and an engineer to solve problems at the intersection of clean energy research and manufacturing, including making innovative technologies more accessible and affordable for the communities that need them most.

“James is incredibly passionate about his research and is extremely energetic and excited to pursue new research areas,” said Bortner. “His ability to grasp and master new and complex concepts has been refreshing, and a welcome addition to spark new and creative approaches to addressing challenging research areas.”

Having gained valuable research experience, Owens’ persistence and curiosities afforded him the opportunity to travel to the University of Cape Town in South Africa as a recipient of the Honors College Class of 1954 Odyssey Fellowship. He worked on a field study and literature review that evaluated the effectiveness of solar panel maintenance programs in underdeveloped areas with Jiska de Groot, a researcher at the South African university.

“The progress and resilience of the communities I worked with were incredible,” said Owens. “Through my interactions with them, my motivations for pursuing energy-focused research were reaffirmed.”

The fellowship also enabled Owens to attend the 2017 and 2018 MIT Energy Conferences in Boston, where he spent two summers learning about green electrochemistry and carbon capture research under Professor Alan Hatton. He was also able to complete a chemical engineering Unit Operations Lab course at the Technical University of Denmark. Both experiences equipped him with global and cultural engineering insights. He has been fortunate to present his research at conferences across the country.

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In 2019, Owens was awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering in the United States, as well as an Astronaut Scholarship, established by the six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts.

In addition to a strong foundation in research, Owens knew his goals would require knowledge of manufacturing skills and the ability to work collaboratively within multidisciplinary teams. He completed co-op rotations with ExxonMobil, developing a model that would predict changes to oil properties in different engines. Owens collaborated with programmers to adapt and launch his model on a site-wide cloud platform. His work helped engineers mitigate their “trial-and-error” processes leading to designing oil formulations more sustainably.

Owens also had the opportunity to lead teams in planning improvement projects, monitoring daily processes, and completing a complex-wide contaminate investigation as a process engineer.

As the chemistry sub-team leader on the Virginia Tech Chem-E-Car Team, Owens mentors a group of students who model and prepare three chemical reactions used to control a car and stop it at a predetermined distance. The team competes against other universities, and they won first place at a Mid-Atlantic regional competition in April 2019 in addition to winning an international competition in Orlando, Florida, in November 2019.

Jim Owens car team
Owens is the chemistry sub-team leader on the Virginia Tech Chem-E-Car Team.

Owens is engaged in tutoring services at a family shelter in his hometown of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and has brought that passion with him to Blacksburg. He shares his enthusiasm for science and engineering as a mentor for over 20 mentees for the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech. Meeting weekly, he helps them prepare for career fairs and exams, discusses ways to get involved on campus, and helps them work through difficulties they may be facing.

During his sophomore year, Owens was selected to be a resident Apartment Fellow and mentor in the Honors College Residential Commons of East Ambler Johnston. He and his suitemates planned fellowship events for dorm residents and worked closely with first-year students to ensure a smooth transition to college.

In addition, Owens serves as a tutor with Omega Chi Epsilon, a chemical engineering honor society. He has tutored students in general chemistry and organic chemistry with Alpha Chi Sigma, a professional chemistry fraternity. He was also a notetaker for the Services for Students with Disabilities office.

Owens has enjoyed participating in service and STEM outreach events, like Relay for Life and local FIRST Robotics tournaments alongside other members of the Chem-E-Car Team and Alpha Chi Sigma.

In addition to his selection as this year's Outstanding Senior for the College of Engineering, Owens has received the 2020 Phi Kappa Phi Medallion Award. Only one award of its kind is given to each college at Virginia Tech. Phi Kappa Phi is the only national honor society that recognizes excellence across all disciplines.

Owen plans to pursue a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While he has tirelessly worked to pursue his professional and educational goals, Owens has found that nearly all of his opportunities and achievements resulted from someone taking a chance on him. 

“As I learn to become a leader and mentor on our campus, I am learning that I should measure my impact in terms of opportunities that I and other students have created or amplified for others to excel and succeed,” said Owens. “My time in Blacksburg cannot be distilled to the lines of a transcript or resume. I have grown from setbacks, realized and pursued my goals, and made lifelong friends and mentors. With all that Virginia Tech has provided me, I hope that my efforts have helped to foster a collaborative academic community for my peers and students to come.”

- Written by Tina Russell