For Ian Davis, his experiences at Virginia Tech and beyond allowed him to see how a lack of equal access to education was an issue interwoven with persisting societal inequalities. He wants to help fix that.

Davis, the 2021 Outstanding Senior for the College of Engineering, arrived at that realization after exploring research, mentoring, outreach, and industry experiences over his four years at Virginia Tech.

Through those experiences, he’s encountered the issues that motivate him and the work he finds fulfilling, while sharpening his leadership and technical skills. Davis’ pursuits and the contributions he’s made to the Virginia Tech community helped earn him his title as the college’s Outstanding Senior, making him one of five chemical engineering students to receive the award in the past nine years.

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Exploring research, industry, and outreach

Davis, who is double majoring in chemical engineering and Russian, made his first venture into engineering research during the summer after his freshman year. He conducted research on a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Texas, working on a noninvasive skin cancer treatment that utilized near-infrared light in conjunction with gold nanorods to selectively target and destroy cancer cells.

Davis was able to present his findings at the 2017 Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting. Still, he found himself searching for more ways to make a visible impact.

Two co-op terms with ExxonMobil in Baytown, Texas, offered Davis opportunities to analyze pumping systems to identify hazardous hydraulic constraints, design and implement a feed sampling station for increased unit safety and optimization, and lead efforts to reduce sulfur oxide emissions. During his second term, Davis served as the contact engineer for two high-throughput process units and guided technical and operations teams through several significant process safety events.    

Serving as the chair for the Relay for Life auction at the site, spending weekends helping with local food drives, and volunteering at local K-12 STEM events allowed Davis to connect with underrepresented groups in the area. Davis would continue to look for chances to engage with communities through outreach. 

As a sophomore, he joined the Chem-E-Car team, which builds and tests an autonomous shoebox-sized car that is powered and controlled using chemical reactions. As a member of the chemistry sub-team, Davis led efforts to develop and iterate new stopping methods for the car in cooperation with the controls and battery sub-teams. The team won back-to-back international Chem-E-Car championships for the first time in the competition’s history in 2019 and 2020. 

The Chem-E-Car team.
As a sophomore, Ian Davis joined the Chem-E-Car team, which builds and tests an autonomous shoebox-sized car that is powered and controlled using chemical reactions. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Davis used this experience as a platform to help promote STEM in under-resourced communities near Blacksburg, Virginia, his hometown. He established a relationship with the New River Robotics Association, which sends volunteers to assist at regional robotics competitions. He also helped with STEM outreach events at the K-12 and university levels, serving everyone from kindergarteners to retirees.    

In 2020, Davis was asked to serve as the Chem-E-Car Competition chair for the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE) annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference at Virginia Tech.

After he spent months planning and navigating the nuances required to run a competition for 35 universities, the conference was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recognition of his leadership efforts, Davis was elected president of Virginia Tech’s student chapter. The 2020 AIChE Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference was planned in a virtual environment with Davis at the helm.

Finding the answer: ‘I can teach’

Along with the connections Davis made through outreach, his experiences in mentoring and tutoring would ultimately help him cement his post-graduation aspirations. When he returned to campus to begin his sophomore year at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2017, Davis began working as a tutor in Student-Athlete Academic Support Services as a way to earn extra money. 

Tutoring quickly became more than an extracurricular activity, and he developed a newfound sense of purpose as he worked with athletes from a variety of sports, academic levels, and academic backgrounds. While balancing a challenging and time-consuming academic schedule as an engineering student, Davis would still dedicate eight to 10 hours per week with student athletes.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, our office shifted to a virtual format,” explained Alise Svihla, associate director of Student-Athlete Academic Support Services. “Many of our tutors decided that they needed to shift their energy and focus elsewhere.

"This was not the case for Ian. He purchased a whiteboard for his apartment and continued tutoring our student athletes virtually from his apartment. He has become so much more to our student athletes than a tutor. He is someone they trust, confide in, and look up to. It is no surprise that Ian is our most requested tutor.”

Ian Davis
Davis has worked as tutor in Student-Athlete Academic Support Services since 2017. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Local experiences also confirmed to Davis that he wanted to stay closely engaged with communities in whatever job he would pursue after graduation. One such experience: He signed up for a weekly ride-along with the Roanoke City Police.

“I knew I needed a firsthand look into the problems people faced,” he said. Witnessing remarkable selflessness and unimaginable heartbreak, Davis asked himself what he could do to help people overcome the ripple effects of societal inequalities.

He arrived at a final answer: “I can teach.”

Davis’ time tutoring, mentoring, and doing outreach has enabled him to take an active part in Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). “I will forever be indebted to Virginia Tech for the opportunities that I’ve had here,” he said.

— Written by Tina Russell. Video by Spencer Roberts.

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