On a crystal clear November afternoon, many in the Carnegie Mellon University community gathered to catch a glimpse of the future. Amid multicolored balloons and mountains of pillowy white cupcakes, it was standing-room-only, as suits and backpacks came together in the heart of the Pittsburgh campus.
President Subra Suresh took the podium. “Today, we are here to officially launch and celebrate the creation of the strategic plan for our next 10 years … a critically important initiative for the university.”
“The last strategic plan was put into place in 2008,” he continued. “Since then, we’ve had the worst recession in living memory. The financial landscape of America has changed, the country itself has changed, the world has changed. … Carnegie Mellon faces many new dynamic challenges, so we must reshape our aspirations and incorporate new methods to achieve our goals.”
The ambitious plan had been more than a year in the making, developed through an all-encompassing, university-wide process. More than 1,200 students, faculty, staff, and alumni took part in more than a dozen town hall gatherings, countless presentations, and more than 100 committee meetings; though it was intense and time-consuming, President Suresh knew the process was crucial:
“The need is especially acute at a time when competitive pressures, public expectations, and rapidly changing technology call into question almost every aspect of higher education,” he wrote in an open letter to the campus community.
Despite an increasingly constrained environment, it’s abundantly clear that higher education and research remain vital. The College Board states that those with higher educational levels are more likely to be employed and climb the socioeconomic ladder. Those countless young people—studying late, saving money, dreaming of bright futures—are depending on affordable, high-quality education. And to ensure that the world of opportunity they envision remains strong and vital, society needs university research to continue to lead the next breakthroughs in everything from the fight against cancer to advances in state-of-the-art cyber-security.
Preeminent institutions such as CMU have both a responsibility and a significant role to play. To meet the many challenges effectively, planning is vital.
That’s why CMU’s Strategic Plan 2025 lays out the university’s commitment, not only to its own community, but also to the regions it inhabits, to society, and to the world. The plan is built on a foundation of three pillars: Individual Experience, University Community, and Societal Impact, with each encompassing a number of detailed goals. There are 24 strategic recommendations for achieving these goals interwoven throughout.
They aren’t just words. As Rick Siger, director of strategic initiatives and engagement, noted to the university community at a town hall meeting, “Many of the things that you see in the plan are happening already, actually.” That’s because, for CMU community members like Newell Washburn, these words are a way of life.
Individual Experience, University Community, Societal Impact
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, our planet’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century. The agency projects it will rise another 0.5°F up to an alarming 8.6°F over the next one. These rising temperatures are considered by many as responsible for increased floods and droughts, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves, not to mention warming and more acidic oceans, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. Such a scenario is terrifying.
The cause of this destruction? To a significant extent, it’s greenhouse gas emissions, which essentially form a cozy, insulating blanket wrapped around the Earth, according to a United Nations panel of experts. Moreover, human urban environments are largely responsible for these pollutants, and CO2 is the primary culprit. That may bring to mind utilities or perhaps cars and trucks, but it’s likely you don’t picture cement. Yet cement production represents one of the largest contributors of global CO2 emissions, at approximately 5% (3% from China alone). This is because cement is the primary ingredient—the glue—in concrete, which is the single most widely used construction material in the world.
Concrete consumption by volume is second only to water. It amounts to three tonnes per person each year. China, with its booming construction industry, produced more concrete in the past three years than the United States poured in the past century. Concrete is ubiquitous, synonymous with civilization since ancient times. Archaeologists discovered a form of concrete in Syria dating to 6,500 BC, and the Romans refined it to an art. Since then, countless structures have sprung up across the world, from the Pantheon with its 43-meter concrete dome to the endless highways and skyscrapers of modern life. Our world depends heavily on concrete, an incomparable building material—strong, pourable, and durable.
Concrete’s basic recipe is simple: sand and gravel, water and cement. Additives may be used to improve various physical qualities. Cement itself is made by combining ingredients that include limestone and clay, then firing the mix to a staggering 1,400°C. More than 3 billion tonnes of cement are produced each year, and the industry rule of thumb is that for every tonne of cement produced, slightly less than a tonne of CO2 is produced along with it, as a product of both chemical reaction and burning fuel. Although manufacturing cement is actually less polluting than manufacturing steel, its sheer quantity creates a significant carbon footprint on the environment. Concerned scientists around the world are working to minimize this impact, but many believe that progress is much too slow.
CMU Associate Professor Newell Washburn and his team may have an answer.
Hidden deep behind the imposing columns of CMU’s Mellon Institute, sits an unassuming suite of connected rooms on the eighth floor. It’s the Washburn lab, where Washburn and his eight students work under rows of fume hoods with bottles, jars, boxes, and other chemical paraphernalia lining the few unused spaces. Desks, tables, and whiteboards crowd the small adjoining rooms. Washburn is an associate professor of chemistry, with joint appointments in both biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering.
In these crowded rooms, the Washburn group is putting the Societal Impact pillar into action, with its three underlying goals that encompass leading in research, advancing understanding of fundamental issues while solving problems of societal significance, and contributing to life in the region and the world. As the plan website states, “No university is better positioned to improve the human condition on a global scale than Carnegie Mellon.” Washburn takes these ideals seriously.
Early on, his environmental focus led him to a fascination with “taking materials with biological origin and chemically modifying them to make them technologically useful.” Intrigued by the particular possibilities of biomass—renewable organics like plants or trees—he turned his attention a few years back to lignin, the plant material left over as waste after paper production. “They have mountains of it,” says Washburn. Over one million tonnes are available each year.
“The last strategic plan was put into place in 2008. Since then, we’ve had the worst recession in living memory. The financial landscape of America has changed, the country itself has changed, the world has changed.”
In plants, lignin is the substance that binds the cellulose fiber, contributes to mechanical strength, and aids in water transport. “My hypothesis was that those are all very useful characteristics and you could actually leverage them if you could control the chemical architecture,” says Washburn. So he decided to try a sophisticated chemistry technique to do just that, essentially “marrying a synthetic polymer with the lignin” to make it behave much as it does in the plant itself. In other words, he would graft a bio-derived polymer molecule onto the lignin particle using the controlled polymerization technique, creating a brand new “ligno-polymer.” (Think nanoscale gumball with spider legs.)
Seems straightforward (to a chemist), but lignin and its composition vary tremendously from plant to plant, making achieving consistent results a tremendous challenge.
It’s just the sort of puzzle that Washburn loves. Chetali Gupta, a graduate student in his lab, discovered that the October day they met in 2013. “I’ve had this idea about lignin for a while—do you want to be fulltime on that? You’ll be the lignin queen by the time you leave as a PhD,” he teased. Washburn had apparently been conducting his own experiments on the side and had laid the successful groundwork for synthesizing the new material. Gupta, who had never heard of lignin, was intrigued, particularly with its environmental angle. “Sounds cool!” she said, and dove in headfirst.
A few months into the project, Washburn returned from a seminar. “Chetali, I think this will work for cement. We need to send this material to one of my colleagues right now.” Washburn knew that a form of lignin had long been used as an additive in concrete, and he had an “aha” conversation at the seminar. Additives have, in fact, been used since the days of the Pantheon, when the Romans added animal blood to improve workability. The Chinese enhanced the mortar of the Great Wall with a more appetizing alternative—sticky rice. Today, we use chemical materials called plasticizers to minimize added water and still keep the concrete pourable. With concrete, less water equals more strength and, importantly, the resulting overall ability to use less concrete. Today, the most popular super-plasticizer is a man-made, petroleum-derived chemical, whereas the current form of lignin is useful only for low-performance applications.
Washburn decided their new material could do much better. As the project progressed, the excitement was palpable.
“He would come up to my desk every day,” Gupta recalls. “He’s very quiet when he walks in, so I can never tell. I’ll have my headphones on, and he’ll say, ‘Chetali!’ and I’ll jump. Each day was, ‘So what happened, what happened?’ Any data I brought in, he would get really excited about. I loved it.”
Washburn’s work with Gupta and his other students is an example of the first of the strategic plan’s three pillars: Individual Experience, which has four goals that include providing students with deep disciplinary knowledge, crucial life skills, and the power to learn and develop personally.
He makes certain his students—both graduate and undergraduate—are hands-on. As he explains, “We want to train them and get them doing meaningful, important research. We try to make sure that everyone is a published author, which if they’re doing all these things, they should be.” These actions illustrate two of the plan’s strategies for reaching this pillar’s goals: Foundational Research & Creativity and Apprenticeship & Mentorship.
In light of these goals, Gupta presented the work on lignin at the 89th American Chemical Society Colloid and Surface Science Symposium that was held on Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus in June. This is the third time that the university has hosted the conference, which brings together close to 600 scientists from 22 countries to present the latest nanotechnology research.
There’s more. Next semester, Washburn will be rolling out a new graduate-level course on molecular engineering. He’s also developed a module for integrating entrepreneurship into the scientific classroom. Within a higher-level course of technical content, his creative module essentially walks students through the process of developing a new technology for commercial application, representing the Innovation in Teaching strategy. Students like Gupta are happy to benefit, both in class and in the lab.
Back at that lab, Washburn and Gupta were thrilled to discover that their inexpensive and environmentally friendly bio-product worked nearly as well as the synthetic super-plasticizer and required much less for the same effect. (More than 50% of the cost of concrete comes from additives.) Moreover, the processing required was significantly less complicated and less time-consuming. Use of this material could drive an increase in the use of chemicals derived from plants as opposed to petroleum. The team is currently in the process of beta-testing with industry partners, preparing to bring the material to market.
But they knew it had greater potential—as in potential to help reduce the overall proportion of cement necessary to mix the billions of tonnes of concrete poured across the globe each year. Researchers are already looking at increasing the use of substitute materials (alternative supplementary cementitious materials, or ASCMs) in the recipe, such as clay and more limestone. (Materials like the fly ash left from the polluting burning of coal have long been used; however, new EPA regulations are expected to greatly limit availability.) ASCMs appear promising in the quest to reduce cement requirements, but unfortunately, their use results in poor workability. Even worse, existing plasticizers just aren’t as effective with these alternate mixtures.
The Washburn team, eager to test their new material, began a collaboration with Kimberly Kurtis, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a recognized cement technology expert.
“I would knock on Newell’s door three times a day,” says Gupta of those exhilarating days, “with ‘I need to talk to you, you need to listen.’ Excel sheets with graphs were floating everywhere. It was pretty darned exciting.”
Their hunch was spot on. The team recently determined that their lignopolymers work well, very well, with ASCMs. The possibilities are tremendous. It doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that even a small percentage reduction in billions of tonnes of cement and CO2 is a very, very large number. Societal Impact indeed.
“Newell is solving a whole new class of green chemical admixtures that can be used along with a whole fleet of technologies to make concrete more sustainable,” says Kurtis. “This could be a big potential development and one of the first of its kind in terms of exploring green chemistries for admixtures in concrete.”
As if that weren’t enough, the Washburn group continued to seek out new applications for their bio-product.
“Newell had this idea,” recalls Gupta. “He said, ‘Let’s see how it disperses on plants.’ The next day, I was in this hoity-toity juice bar saying, ‘I need wheat leaves, please.’ The guy just looked at me, but finally gave me a little. We played with them all day.”
“We’ll constantly be re-examining how we’re doing. There may be things we think are great ideas, which—two years from now—aren’t right for the university. I also know there will be terrific new ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.”
Wheat leaves and all, they eventually determined that, yes, their material could make a difference in the agrochemical industry, as an additive to pesticides and herbicides. Turns out that even organic farming involves the use of both products in some form, and additives are needed to help the sprays stick to the leaves. One popular additive (currently used in conventional products like Round-Up) is highly toxic. Others are silicone-based, meaning they’ll be around longer than the Pantheon. Lignin, however, is non-toxic and fully degradable. It’s also much cheaper. The team is working with industry partners to commercialize this function as well.
Washburn’s work in bringing these technologies to market is one of many ways he represents the strategic plan’s second pillar, University Community, with five goals that include taking interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving, concentrating world-class talent, and supporting of innovation and entrepreneurship.
As the team examines commercialization options, Washburn particularly notes CMU’s “fantastic, really superb” Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation, as well as support from the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. These activities represent this pillar’s Support of Entrepreneurial Activities strategy. And a goal of any new company Washburn takes forward is to base it in Pittsburgh, working toward the plan’s Regional Impact goal.
His success depends largely on the fact that his research spans numerous disciplines, and his students reflect this. The chemistry professor with three appointments has a lab that includes four doctoral students and four undergraduates, two of whom are integrated master’s students. Their disciplines include chemistry, civil engineering, materials science and engineering, and chemical engineering. Washburn encourages his students to work in teams, chemists with engineers, to more broadly expose them. It’s the Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Encounters strategy in action.
Washburn and Gupta recently completed the National Science Foundation-sponsored I-Corps program at both the CMU level and the highly selective regional level. The program helps graduate students gain insight into developing successful business models. Gupta won Top Entrepreneurial Lead—impressive for a student who entered CMU with absolutely no entrepreneurial aspirations. She points out that Washburn makes certain she participates in meetings with industry partners and presents their research, the Integrated Graduate Education strategy.
The interdisciplinary, innovative attributes of the Washburn team are the same attributes that the strategic plan must be nimble enough to represent. The plan fittingly resides on a creative website and identifies a host of disciplines among the three pillars, 12 goals, and 24 strategic recommendations.
So just as the Washburn group is a living representation of interwoven connections, the plan’s website is meant to be a living document, not a static, multi-page tome, emphasized Siger, which, in part, is why the living document will have metrics, individualized for the various strategies, to clearly measure ongoing progress. The site, added Siger, will also allow for a change in priorities. “We’ll constantly be re-examining how we’re doing. There may be things we think are great ideas, which—two years from now—aren’t right for the university. I also know there will be terrific new ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.”
President Suresh reaffirmed the living document concept during the launch: “The 2025 plan is not a print document you put on a shelf and visit 10 years later. It’s something that’s dynamic and allows room for new strategy as conditions change. … The successful implementation of the plan requires engagement from every layer of the university. Each of us has accountability.”
No worries, say Washburn and Gupta, because accountability has always been a catalyst for their research, which they feel certain is also the case for their colleagues throughout the university community. They, and all of CMU, have already begun pursuing the strategic plan’s vision for the university, which is to have a transformative impact on society through continual innovation in education, research, creativity, and entrepreneurship.