Chemical engineering grad ready to make a splash in sustainability efforts

Contact: Erin Flynn
Zahi Sanchez poses outside for a photo in her graduation cap and gown.

Zahi Sanchez is ready to step into her career as an environmental engineer.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—She's traveled the world, speaks six languages and has competed internationally at some of the highest levels of swimming, and Zahi Sanchez will soon add Western Michigan University alumna to her impressive resume. An international student from Dominican Republic, Sanchez will graduate Saturday, April 29, with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and a job already secured as an environmental engineer for a paper mill in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"I'm looking forward to being part of PFAS removal from wastewater, nutrient extraction from water, removal of microplastics from water and air-quality improvement," she says.

Sanchez, who was named the Department of Chemical and Paper Engineering's Presidential Scholar, says she's ready to hit the ground running thanks to supportive instructors who took lessons beyond textbooks.

Zahi Sanchez walks down a hallway in Floyd Hall wearing a white lab coat.

Sanchez is the Presidential Scholar for the Department of Chemical and Paper Engineering.

"It was all about giving us real-world problems. Because usually, theoretically, the math works. But sometimes when you put it into practice, it's something completely different. So (our professors) first showed us how to do the math, and then they showed us how to correctly apply it in the field and to be able to make quick decisions in case something didn't work out," she says. "You come out of Western already having all of this knowledge so you don't have to learn everything from zero (on the job); you already have a base and just have to build on it."

Sanchez came to Western through a dual-degree partnership with Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo (INTEC) in Dominican Republic. Through the agreement, students complete their first two years at INTEC and their final two years at Western in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"My friends and I (in the Dominican Republic) were a little skeptical at first about coming to Western because it seemed like such a small town and we were worried about winter," she says. "Now, I don't want to leave! I'm wondering if I can find a job closer by so I can stay here. I was actually talking to Dr. (Said) Abubakr about coming back and getting my master's or even my Ph.D. here."


Beyond the classroom, impactful undergraduate research opportunities and connections to internships helped Sanchez stand out in her chosen field. One project involved working with Dr. Mert Atilhan, associate professor of chemical and paper engineering, to devise a process to extract the polymer lignin from wood chip waste at paper mills and create biodegradable water filters.

Zahi Sanchez holds up a container filled with water to examine it in the laboratory.

Sanchez worked on several projects related to water purification.

"Wood chips are usually disposed of in a landfill," Sanchez says. "(Through this process), we can transform that waste into something else.

Another project with Dr. Priyanka Sharma, assistant professor of chemical and paper engineering, also focused on filtration methods. Her research involved working to develop a filter made with cellulose that is able to absorb phosphates and nitrates from the water.

"The phosphates and nitrates are really good for soil," Sanchez says,"so we're trying to remove them. And the filter itself is going to be biodegradable, so once you're done with the filter, you can just put it into the soil or send it to a farm. … And when it's placed in the soil, it will cause no secondary harm and will make that soil even better because it will have more nutrients."

In addition to hands-on research and projects, Sanchez completed an internship last summer in the environmental department of a manufacturing company in Georgia. Abubakr also connected her with an opportunity at the city of Kalamazoo Water Resources Division, where she was able to learn more about water treatment processes.

Beyond work experiences and research, Sanchez found opportunities to network and travel through Western's chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers—competing against peers from around the world in ChemE-sports competitions, which allowed her to put what she learned in the classroom into practice through simulations of real-world problems.

"My time at WMU helped me build character and become comfortable in the uncomfortable," Sanchez says. "As an international student, coming to Western cemented a feeling of empowerment. It allowed me to share interests with people from all over the world, making connections that go beyond a classroom. Overall, the opportunities given at Western are endless, and I'm so grateful to be able to call myself a WMU Bronco."

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