Maria Furukawa: B.S. in Chemistry, Polymers Concentration

“I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech and a helluva scientist!”

Maria Emily Furukawa has diverse origins. She came to Georgia Tech with a dizzying portfolio of high-school accomplishments. She leaves Georgia Tech with abundant skills to face the world. 

Maria is a Japanese Canadian American. She was born in Canada, raised by Japanese parents, and became a U.S. citizen while in high school.

In McIntosh High School, Peachtree City, Georgia, Maria’s life was action-packed. She played sports – basketball, cross-country, track, discus, and shotput. She joined volunteer organizations and honor societies. She studied piano and played violin in the school orchestra. She earned a brown belt in karate. On top of these, she took Advanced Placement courses in chemistry and calculus, among others.

Interest in science was one constant in Maria’s whirlwind life. In elementary and middle schools, she participated in Science Olympiad.  In high school, she joined Adopt-A-Stream and was team leader for two years.

During summers, Maria was busy, too. As part of the University of Georgia’s Young Scholars Internship Program, she studied hormone concentrations in septic tanks, analyzed the proteins in bamboo leaf tissue, and traveled to Costa Rica to learn about agriculture and environmental sustainability. Plus, she took part in the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s Disease Detectives Camp

Maria was supercharged before she arrived in Georgia Tech. On campus, she didn’t skip a beat as she plunged into a chemistry major.

What attracted you to Georgia Tech?
I wanted to stay close to family.  

On the campus tour, I saw how beautiful the campus was in comparison to others. Walking around campus, I felt a sense of brilliance and an academically driven atmosphere. Although it felt a bit scary and nerve-wracking, I also felt a tinge of excitement to be starting somewhere and possibly becoming someone.

Georgia Tech was my first choice because I wanted to continue the academic rigor I had in high school and to be pushed to new limits. I learned so much here that I would have never thought of learning – from coding, to slasher film analysis, to polymer chemistry.

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
That life exists outside of classes and grades.

It’s easy to get bogged down with classes, assignments, and grades that you forget to stop and smell the roses. In times of high stress and workload, I remind myself that the light at the end of the tunnel is near. I make plans with family or friends to separate myself from school and just go and live life.

What are your proudest achievements at Georgia Tech?
My proudest achievements are many, including being one of the few to have completed an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a co-op at Yokogawa Corporation of America.

In my co-op experience, I was one of only two non-engineering/non-computer science majors amid 30 or so engineers. With an “I Can Do That” attitude, I learned to build setups and to troubleshoot mechanical or instrumental failures. I initiated my own five-month project and taught myself to code in VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) to interconnect testing spreadsheets to standardize and streamline data analysis.

None of this had anything to do with chemistry. I succeeded through my own perseverance and determination. I’m proud of what I accomplished and left behind for future co-op students. The experience I gained is priceless as it has helped me get closer to my career goals. I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech and a helluva scientist!

Which professors or classes made a big impact on you?
Synthesis Lab II was my hardest class. The twice-a-week lab took up about 70% of my time during the week, from the lab work to the constant spectral data analysis and lab reports due weekly.

As difficult as this course was, I learned the most from it in lab techniques and synthetic mechanisms. As a bonus, I learned scientific glassblowing, which helped in my undergraduate research, when I had to seal a nickel tube in a quartz ampule in order to synthesize a compound. The course made me realize how much I enjoy synthesis. Now, I want to pursue a synthesis-based career.

Many professors guided me throughout my journey at Georgia Tech. Dr. Angus Wilkinson was a supportive research advisor during and after my work in his group as an undergraduate researcher. Working in his lab motivated me to pursue a research or lab-based career. My academic advisors Dr. Kimberly Schurmeier and Dr. William Baron gave me support and guidance throughout the years.   

What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
From grueling nights studying and then seeing the beautiful sun rise, to witnessing the ground-breaking gravitational waves research, to being on the football field taking photos for the Technique newspaper, to seeing Ben Seidman perform magic and comedy, to the back to the future day on Oct. 21, 2015, and seeing the replica car –  each memory has its own story.

One of my favorite moments was my first time on a rollercoaster at the Georgia Tech Night at Six Flags, in 2018. I had been terrified of heights and rollercoasters and still do to some extent. That night, I rode my first rollercoaster with my longtime friend, Katie, whom I met at FASET when we both started taking classes in June 2015. The ride was exhilarating, the best time I’ve had in a long time. I’m glad to have gone with Katie – she is truly a friend for life.  

How did Georgia Tech transform your life?
As a high school graduate, I was shy and quiet, with little confidence in myself. Four-and-a-half years later, I know myself better and I feel confident. I’ve become a stronger person.

Part of my transformation was due to Georgia Tech. Part of it was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Joining the Georgia Tech public speaking club and becoming a teaching assistant for general chemistry changed my life. The undergraduate journey dissipated my fear of public speaking and instilled belief and confidence in myself.

What unique learning activities did you undertake?
As a chemist/chemical engineer co-op student at Yokogawa Corporation of America, I tested and calibrated production gas analyzers and provided line support. I standardized production of these analyzers by documenting procedures in writing, which have been published and implemented internally.

The most valuable outcome from this experience was that I increased production and saved data analysis time with the project I initiated. I’ve been told that I have set the standard for incoming co-op students.

When I interned at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, I studied free radical polymerization synthesis and optical and mechanical characterization of self-healing polymers.

This experience blended my course material with real-world applications.
I was excited to gain experience in polymer chemistry. The most valuable outcome was experiencing what it’s like to work in a research lab outside of the university environment.

Combined with my love for synthesis lab and polymer chemistry, this experience has strongly motivated me to pursue a career in polymer or materials research.

I worked in Dr. Angus Wilkinson’s group on the structural changes in CaZrF6 when subjected to milling and reheating. The compound could have applications in optics. The most valuable outcome was applying previously learned lab techniques (scientific glassblowing) and learning many new techniques (glove box work, arc-welding, preparing samples for X-ray powder diffraction).

From these experiences, I learned that I enjoy problem-solving and working with interesting materials.

What advice would you give to incoming undergraduate students at Georgia Tech?
Know that anything is possible and that nothing is impossible.
College is a time to learn and make mistakes. Learn as much as you can and don’t be afraid to try something new. You may learn that it’s not for you, and that’s okay!

Where are you headed after graduation?
I plan to work in industry for a couple of years. I also plan to pursue a Ph.D. in polymers or material chemistry, after years of telling myself and others that a Ph.D. is “just not for me.”

How false that statement was! After doing undergraduate research and interning at Oak Ridge, I realized that graduate school is where I need to be. All my life, I have craved challenge and overcoming those challenges. My experiences at Georgia Tech tell me that my learning doesn’t stop after I graduate with a Bachelors in Science. There’s still more that I can learn. Georgia Tech has prepared me to be a better time manager and problem-solver.

This quote from Julia Glass describes my time here: “When it comes to life, we spin our own yarn, and where we end up is really, in fact, where we always intended to be.”