Solving problems through the lens of sustainability

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

To think, it all started with a little competition and some cheese. Dylan Ellis grad profile 2021 Dylan Ellis is graduating as a chemical engineer in spring 2021 from the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Download Full Image

In high school, Dylan Ellis competed in the nationally recognized Science Olympiad — a competition that paved a path for this learner's journey at Arizona State University, and his pursuit in chemical engineering. During this competition, Ellis and his partner characterized and extruded cheese — a memorable process that left him wanting to know more about materials science and its relation to chemical engineering. He immediately started doing research. 

“When I saw how well-equipped the field was to solve our biggest problems in sustainability and medicine, and how it combined all my interests of biology, chemistry, design and business, I knew it would be the best choice for me,” Ellis told ASU News.

This spring, Ellis, whose hometown is Fort Collins, Colorado, is graduating as a chemical engineer from the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is also a student at Barrett, The Honors College and the director of Changemaker Central — a student-led initiative that encourages the ASU community to drive social change.

Among his many accolades, Ellis was a New American University Scholar – National Merit Finalist and an American Slovenian Education Foundation fellow to Slovenia. He received a number of scholarships, including Chapel of the Flowers Scholarship, Slovenian Women's Union Scholarship and the Slovenian Union of America Scholarship. Ellis also received Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative funding twice, to research work aimed at advancing sustainability.

This impressive scholar’s journey at ASU is far from over. Next year, he plans to pursue his master’s degree in chemical engineering, working on a thesis to metabolically engineer bacteria for the sustainable reutilization of waste and biosynthesis of valuable products. After that, he plans to take his skills to the biotech industry in hopes of making a positive impact on the environment and human health.

In his own words, Ellis explains his experience at ASU and shares his wisdom with future students.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: ASU drilled the concept of sustainability into my perspective. At both Changemaker Central and in chemical engineering, I learned that in order to make lasting change, the solution must be novel and self-sustaining. Solutions now must not compromise the future. Because of ASU, I now thankfully view every problem through a lens of sustainability.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the energy. The word gets thrown around a lot, but I do think it is meaningful that we consistently place No. 1 in innovation — we have so many resources, expert faculty and cutting-edge activity going on. I knew coming here would help me grow and prepare me to make an impact.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Arul Varman taught me how to be an effective researcher and how vital having a good community is to success and happiness.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I would urge students to be strategic and listen to themselves. College is a time of exploration and self-discovery, but a frequent problem I encountered was spending time doing things out of obligation or that I think I "should" do rather than what I want to do. Students owe it to themselves to make the most out of this exciting time by trying different things to find what they enjoy and what will help them grow.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Changemaker Space in the (Memorial Union) was always my favorite spot — the atmosphere is always so lively and the community is amazing and inspiring.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would spend the money on efforts to close the loop on the circular economy. The buildup of waste is a huge problem our generation has to face, and technologies for breaking down and repurposing waste are in dire need in order to maintain the health of the environment and society.

Jimena Garrison

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications

ASU Law student views online MLS pursuit as ‘rocket ride to the moon’ in furthering career, life goals

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

From a 14-year-old public works estimator — what he refers to as his “first side hustle” — to becoming a carpenter’s union apprentice at 22, to now earning a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree in construction law, Robert Gilliam knows what drives him. Photo of Robert Gilliam and family Robert Gilliam, ASU Law MLS degree spring 2021 grad, with his family at their ranch in California’s Mojave Desert. Download Full Image

“What became quite clear at a very young age was the clear delineation between the white-collar managers who worked in the offices and the blue-collar workers that performed the work on the job site,” said Gilliam, who will graduate this spring with his online MLS from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. “Quite amazingly, there seemed to be very little in common with the two castes. Everything that has happened in my career after that has been driven by my passion to unite these two factions.”

Now 36, Gilliam looks forward to taking his years of hands-on trade work — which he says exposed him to a unique set of challenges in a highly competitive, political and foreign environment — to using his master’s degree in furthering his passion.

“When I discovered ASU Law’s MLS in construction law, everything just clicked,” said Gilliam, who is based on a small ranch in Southern California’s Mojave Desert with his wife and their three children. “Here was a program that would have real-life application to the tasks that I perform every day, including contract/specification review, professional and legal writing, dispute resolution, property, land use regulations, water/environmental laws — the list goes on.”

And even better, ASU Law offers a path for construction and sustainability.

“I felt like they had designed the degree just for me,” he said. “My critical thinking skills have never been sharper. The last few years of my life have felt like a rocket ride to the moon as I continue to experience unbridled personal and professional growth.

“Balancing a large construction portfolio with school and family life has presented a unique challenge, but it has also energized my performance to levels I never knew I was capable of. Continual learning has become a passion of mine and I’m proud of myself for completing my master’s.”

How it all started

“I was raised in an environment in which hard work defined my character,” Gilliam said.

As a junior public works estimator, Gilliam says the joy he found in the challenge of reviewing complex blueprints and bid documents, combined with the diverse and talented people he worked alongside, made him decide to delay college.

“At the time nothing seemed more important than taking on the world,” Gilliam said. “I was promoted to site superintendent, which gave me even more exposure to the crews. What inevitably shocked me was how intelligent the average tradesperson was in comparison to their white-collar counterparts. Even more amazingly, many of them didn’t realize that they were smart. I never felt bad about skipping college, but as my career progressed I knew I was selling myself short.”

As a carpenter’s union apprentice at 22, Gilliam eventually earned his associate and bachelor’s degrees. He then gained a role with The Walt Disney Company as part of its facilities asset management team. It was that experience that led him to want to learn more.

“When exploring online master’s programs, I found a lot of construction management and project management options, but upon examination the curriculum fell flat,” he said. “I couldn’t stomach the thought of spending my time and money on a generic degree, and having spent time working as real-world leader for a Fortune 500, I knew that generic wouldn’t cut it.

“ASU Law offered something that no other online program could: A challenge. I knew that if the program wouldn’t challenge me, it wouldn’t change me.”

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU Law — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I’m amazed at how amorphous the law is. It isn’t enough to memorize statutes and common law holdings, you need to change the way you think.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU Law?

A: Professor (Kirk) Hays is one of those "once in a lifetime"-type mentors. Very rarely do you get the opportunity to peer inside the mind of a true experienced working professional within the confines of academia.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those contemplating ASU Law, and those still in law school?

A: Don’t be a co-pilot. Design your future. Harness the power of your own untapped potential.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: It’s been said that success occurs when preparation and opportunity intersect. I don’t know where the future will bring me, but I will continue to strive every day to make myself a better person and a more capable professional. You never know what amazing opportunities are around the corner.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Access to the law. One thing that I’ve realized along my academic journey is that justice doesn’t exist in the same capacity for those who have and those who have not, especially underrepresented cultures and communities domestic and abroad.

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law