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A ChemE Reconnection Road Trip

By Lindsey Doermann
August 20, 2021

After months of pandemic isolation, one alum took to the highway with his family to get a better view of the country and reunite with the ChemE community

"EK and family"
  EK, Kaira, and Anna

When he got to California, the fatigue really started to set in. Ikechukwu Nwaneshiudu (Ph.D. ‘13), who goes by EK, had just driven with his wife and 6-month-old daughter across the country from Philadelphia. And it was a long way back.

It was May 2021, vaccines were becoming readily available, and the family sorely needed a change of scenery. EK’s wife, Anna, is a recent immigrant from Nigeria; she moved to the United States in the latter part of 2019. The couple got married and enjoyed trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas. Not too long after that, though, the pandemic ground life to a halt. They hadn’t had the chance to do much of what they’d looked forward to — going to basketball games and concerts, even just discovering their favorite neighborhood hangouts. Instead, EK said, “She got a horrible image of what the United States was.”

He was confident he could turn those impressions around. They had some time, so how about a road trip to explore the cities and culture in different regions of the country? They could make their way down to Laredo, Texas, to see one of EK’s sisters. Then, if they were going that far, then they might as well continue on and visit another sister in San Francisco.

"map of US and trip highlight photos"
EK, Anna, and Kaira visited (from L to R) the Redwoods, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Mount Rushmore, and New Orleans

At some point, EK realized he knew a lot more people along the way. “How many ChemE’s can we see on the way to San Francisco?” he mused. By the time the round trip was complete, they had visited eight — and got the selfies to prove it.

EK completed his Ph.D. at UW in 2013, working in Dan Schwartz’s group. His thesis research explored how to tailor polymer phases to enhance Raman spectroscopy. After graduating, EK stayed in Seattle for a postdoc before ultimately landing at Merck in Philadelphia. There, he uses his Raman expertise in process analytical technologies to aid in the development of vaccines, anticancer therapeutics, and more.

His ChemE network — which became clear during his 30-day, 11,500-mile journey through 25 states — is geographically expansive. “On such short notice, all the ChemE’s were very welcoming,” said EK. In clockwise order, he visited:

  • Brent Nannenga (Ph.D. ‘11), Tempe, Arizona
  • Trevor Braun (Ph.D. ‘16), San Francisco, California
  • Tyler House (Ph.D. ‘13), Portland, Oregon
  • Andrew Collord (Ph.D. ‘15), Portland, Oregon
  • Professor Dan Schwartz, Vashon, Washington
  • David Chiu (Ph.D. ‘13), Seattle, Washington
  • Jeff Richards (Ph.D. ‘14), Evanston, Illinois
  • Brian Swift (Ph.D. ‘16), Kalamazoo, Michigan
"collage of selfies of EK and friends he visited"
   EK took selfies with all the ChemE friends he visited

“When told the reason for this epic trip,” said Schwartz, “I was proud to be part of the ChemE community that EK felt showed off the positive character of regular Americans (in contrast to those making news or visible on social media).” Schwartz hosted EK and family for lunch at his home on Vashon Island.

Leave it to a ChemE to pull off this kind of trip: it took testing and optimization to figure out how they could spend so much time on the move with a 6-month-old and keep their sanity intact. EK and Anna practiced ahead of time to see how long Kaira could tolerate being in the car. They nailed down the right timing for wake-up, feeding, car-loading, and playing and napping in transit.

The established routine paid off. Along with seeing family and friends, they got a flavor for many regions of the country. They checked out a lot of big cities (some favorites: Houston and Omaha). They also found adventure in some wilder places (turned around by blizzard conditions in Yellowstone). And in all those miles, EK points out, they were fortunate to have no major incidents, car trouble, or tickets. In fact, a traffic stop in South Dakota turned into a memorable-in-a-good-way moment: just a friendly and somewhat-bored officer wanting to hear the story of this couple and cute baby with out-of-state plates.

“The trip did the job” for seeing the states in a much better light than a lot of 2020’s big stories would have you believe, he said. “We made it to California and it wasn’t burning!” And as a nice bonus, he was able to introduce Anna to people who made his time in UW ChemE the positive experience it was. When all was said and done, they concluded, “the United States is actually pretty cool.”