Dimitris Priftis was planning to spend several years at the University of California, Berkeley when he joined Matthew Tirrell’s group as a postdoctoral researcher in 2010.
But not long after he joined, while he was at a conference in Europe, he got an email from Tirrell saying that the professor was joining the University of Chicago to lead a new molecular engineering program. Priftis and his wife just had a son, and he was worried what that meant for his future.
“When I got back, Matt told us everything about the program, and I was really excited,” Priftis said. “When the lab moved, we were the first ones there, the program was five people. We had no building or lab space, but we had all of the resources we could dream of to build it.”
That meant Priftis had the opportunity to help review architectural plans for the lab—useful experience that most postdocs don’t get—in addition to conducting research on complex coacervates. He studied the physical properties and potential applications of these charged polymers while also seeing the lab and the program grow.
“The first lab holiday dinner was one table with five of us,” he said. “The last one I attended was a whole reception. Now, there are many graduate students building on the research that I started. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Though he initially dreamed of becoming a professor, Priftis ultimately joined Boeing as a materials, process, and physics engineer while also mentoring students as an adjunct professor at Clemson University. “I thought careers were black and white—either academia or industry—but I got to do both,” he said.
Now he works as a senior manufacturing process engineer with aerospace company Blue Origin, working on polymer coatings for rockets. He credits his interdisciplinary education at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago for helping to develop his guiding mentality.
“Very few problems can be solved by a single discipline,” he said. “We had chemists, physicists, and engineers all under the same roof. It taught me the value of dealing with problems from different perspectives.”