NCE’s Top Grad Student Does Research to Develop a New Class of Drugs

NCE’s Top Graduate Student: Daniel Lepek

Daniel Lepek, a chemical engineering major whose research involving pharmaceutical powders could help develop a new class of nano-drugs, was recently named the Newark College of Engineering’s (NCE) Outstanding Graduate Student.

Each spring, the college gives the award to a graduate student with a distinguished academic record, sound research and proven leadership skills.  The college enrolls more than 1,200 graduate students, many of whom make contributions to their fields, so being chosen for the award is a high honor.  And in his four years at NCE, Lepek, a doctoral student who’ll get his Ph.D. in December, has been nothing short of honorable. 

“I felt honored to not only represent the Chemical Engineering Department but the entire school of engineering as the top graduate student,” says Lepek, 26.  “I hope I can set a fine example for future winners and convince other students that becoming a graduate student in chemical engineering is a worthwhile experience.” 

Pioneering Research

Lepek studies the effect of fluids on the flow properties of nano-powders.  Nano-powders consist of particles that are infinitesimally small -- one billionth of a meter --- and can only be seen with a powerful microscope.  His understanding of how these nano-powders flow could lead to new methods of coating drugs, a common process in the pharmaceutical industry.       

Robert Pfeffer, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering, describes Lepek’s research as “totally novel.”

“No one has ever tried to fluidize nano-particles in a fluid while simultaneously coating them with a polymer solution,” adds Pfeffer, who is Lepek’s research adviser.  “Should his research prove successful, it will open up a new approach for film coating nano-particles.”

Helping the University

In addition to his pioneering research, Lepek has developed and taught two undergraduate courses for the Chemical Engineering Department.  He helped the department recruit students by presenting his research during Career Days, Graduate Open Houses and Teacher Initiative Programs as well as at Open Houses for high school students.  He has served as the Vice-President of the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineers. 

He’s was also twice honored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  He received an NSF fellowship to study nano-pharmaceutical engineering and an NSF grant to study a sub-field of nanotechnology known as nano-fluidization.  The grant allowed him to collaborate with scientists working at the University of Seville, in Spain, where he spent two summers.  The trips resulted in his publishing two research papers in respected peer reviewed scientific journals.   He presented his research at the American Institute of Chemical Engineer’s annual meetings as well as at the World Congress on Particle Technology.  He’s been awarded two named scholarships that support his research. 

Top Student from Staten Island

Lepek grew up in Staten Island, where he attended public elementary school.  His late mother was a fourth-grade teacher and his father is a retired insurance examiner who now teaches second grade at P.S. 54 in Staten Island.  Lepek later attended Tottenville High School, which has a science institute for students who excel in science.   Lepek attended the institute and took an early interest in chemistry.

When he was a senior in high school, though, Lepek got some harrowing news: His mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.  “It was hard on Daniel when he was mother was battling cancer,” recalls his father, Martin Lepek.  “But he helped me take care of her and never let it affect his studies.  He’s a hard working student, humble, with a good heart and he was always there for her.  Later on losing his mom was very hard for him. His mother was a teacher and had him focused academically in the right direction. After she passed, I helped keep direct him. But he was always a great student, especially in math and science, and he’s a great son.”

Lepek still graduated from high school with honors and was accepted at Cooper Union, the selective college in Manhattan that admits only top seniors from across the nation.  Once accepted, though, all students get full scholarships.  Thomas Edison took classes at Cooper Union and Abraham Lincoln spoke in its Great Hall.  Lepek studied chemical engineering there and, when a senior, met NJIT Professor Reginald Tompkins, who came to Cooper Union to recruit.

“Professor Tompkins made a very good case for studying chemical engineering at NJIT,” recalls Lepek.  “I applied and was accepted.”

It was a good decision.  For once here, he got to work with prominent professors in a field of research he didn’t realize had such potential.  “My excellent advisers, Professors Robert Pfeffer and Rajesh Dave, took me on as their student and introduced me to the world of particle technology,” says Lepek.  “Without them I wouldn’t have conducted novel research, published two papers in respected journals or developed international collaborations.”

The strongest element of NJIT, Lepek adds, is the quality of its professors, its staff and its students.  I have met staff members and faculty members who have gone out of their way to help me, and I’ve forged great relationships with my fellow students, both graduate and undergraduate.  I’m grateful to NJIT for offering me all these marvelous opportunities.”

Chemical engineering is a field that offers students an array of terrific career options.  Lepek is considering getting a post-doctoral research position at a prominent university, either here or abroad.  As a post doctoral researcher, he’ll spend a year or two continuing his particle-technology research.  And after that he’d like to become a professor of chemical engineering.  He loves to teach and would working as a professor would still give him time to continue his research. 

“I’d like to become a successful professor of chemical engineering,” he says, “as well as a respected graduate of NJIT -- the university that has taught me so much.”

 (By Robert Florida, University Web Services)