Malena Rybacki has never been an average student. They arrive at Benedum Hall at 7 a.m. with color-coded notes and stay until the late hours of the night to study. For Rybacki, who uses they/them pronouns, working harder than their engineering peers is necessary to pave the way for others that follow in their footsteps.
Rybacki, a senior chemical engineering student, was one of 24 students awarded at the Future Leaders Symposium at North Carolina State University. They presented their work on converting carbon dioxide into usable products.
“I’ve always been an experimenter and researcher, and I’m proud I get to share my work,” Rybacki said.
Giannis Mpourmpakis, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Swanson School and principal investigator alongside Rybacki, said Rybacki is a highly motivated student that pushes the bar for undergraduate research. Rybacki’s research was also published in the high-impact journal, “Environmental Science: Nano.”
“It really is a pleasure to work with them,” Mpourmpakis said.
Despite Rybacki being so young, their work is being highly regarded by the scientific community.
Anantha Nagarajan, who served as Rybacki’s former graduate student advisor while completing his PhD in chemical engineering, said Rybacki’s work has led to the dissemination of important findings in the field of atomically precise nanochemistry and computational catalysis.
“Their enthusiasm for addressing complex scientific challenges always impressed me,” Nagarajan said. “I really look forward to hearing about their future successes.”
Rybacki has plans to attend graduate school after graduating from Pitt; however, their interests go beyond research.
Before coming to the Swanson School, Rybacki knew there was something important about their identity, but they didn’t have words for it. Understanding their gender identity as well as being neurodivergent – learning and communicating differently than other students – defined a significant portion of their personal journey while studying engineering.
“I think college is a space to learn who you are and find the words that you identify with.”
Rybacki is on the path to become a life-long leader in academia to advocate for students who may learn or identify differently than traditional students. Rybacki wants to lead in creating more accessible classroom environments for divergent and nontraditional learners, including hands-on activities, flipped classrooms and conjunctive learning.
“Above all, it's not about me,” Rybacki said. “It's about what I can be for the next generation: an advocate for those without a voice, a platform for those with a voice, and a facilitator of knowledge and change.”
From Pitt SSOE