For Chett Boxley, CEO of GlycoSurf, mining wasn’t always on his radar for a potential career. After growing up in Phoenix, Boxley graduated from the University of Arizona in 1997 with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He switched over from the pre-med track to chemistry after an influential professor showed him the opportunities available in the world of chemistry. Boxley would then go on to pursue a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Utah, and he also received his MBA from Westminster College.
After graduate school, Boxley entered the industry for a ceramics and materials science company in Utah, where he worked on various research projects. In this role, he learned a lot about Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, which involves writing proposals for funding research projects. This was extremely valuable to Boxley as he transitioned over to GlycoSurf which utilizes a lot of SBIR knowledge and grant writing in order to fund its research.
GlycoSurf is a specialty chemicals company that creates synthetically made surfactants which are used for the purposes of remediation. This research has been building off of decades of past microbiology research being conducted by Raina Maier, Professor and Director of the UA Superfund Research Program, Jeanne Pemberton, Regents Professor, and other professionals and University of Arizona students in the environmental science field.
Decades of Research Culminating in New Discoveries
Remediation in this particular case involves looking at how microbial soaps have the ability to remove specific contaminants from complex solutions. Maier has spent decades researching these surfactants and has found that certain types of soaps can be synthetically made to attract specific metals. Building on prior research, UArizona researchers created a process that would allow these surfactants to be made quicker and in a less complex way.
Maier and Pemberton wanted to apply the surfactants to real world situations in order to make mining more sustainable by tapping into formerly unused resources. Rare earth elements, such as cerium and neodymium, are central to renewable energy infrastructure. These elements occur in low concentrations, which often contributes to mining large pieces of land. However, estimates have shown that the U.S. demand for these materials could be met by mining tailings waste–with the right technology. Mining tailings waste are leftover waste piles at mines that were created from mines unable to process the materials. As technology has improved, tailings piles can be re-examined to process materials in new ways. To get this research into action, GlycoSurf was created in 2013 with the aim of commercializing the surfactants.
GlycoSurf is a small company, which presents unique challenges and opportunities. The company has to be specific with funding, and the team each wears a lot of different hats. The physical space also fosters a higher rate of interaction and teamwork.
“Half of my day is filled with science,” says Boxley. But because there isn’t a separate finance department, he also takes on the role of business management tasks, proposal writing, and more. Since he’s in the same space with the whole team he gets to interact with other employees, working towards problem solving issues together.
You don’t have to wait to graduate to start your career in research! Boxley says getting an internship or doing Undergraduate research is a great experience. “Expand your skill set,” says Boxley. You may even find you want to change paths. While Boxley acknowledges the field of chemistry can seem daunting, there are countless opportunities in the world of mining. There are several challenges in mining that can only be solved through chemistry.
There’s countless opportunities for research at the University of Arizona. “Most of the professors I know want to take undergraduates on to get their feet wet in research,” says Maier. The University of Arizona even has a Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining. Since the Center partners with major mining companies, undergraduate researchers have the opportunity to attend meetings and present their research.
Boxley also recommends students to network in order to set themselves up for their future success. “Network when you don’t need it,” so that way it’s there for you when you do. One of the first things Boxley does when looking for applicants is looking at their LinkedIn page to see their experience and online professional presence. “Networking was there for me,” says Boxley, who got involved with GlycoSurf after staying in touch with one of the founders.
For University of Arizona students, opportunities are endless for a career in research and sustainability. Are you interested in making a difference? Check out the Office of Undergraduate Research, or reach out to your professors!