Bagpipe-Playing Student Highlights Engineering Graduation Ceremonies

Chemical engineering graduate student Derek Reed shares talent in annual celebration

Derek Reed plays bagpipes at a School of Engineering commencement ceremony. Submitted photo

At age 13, Derek Reed began playing the bagpipes purely out of curiosity.

“I didn’t play any other musical instruments at the time, and the history that I learned about the bagpipes and about Scotland was fascinating to me,” said Reed, now a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of Mississippi. “I knew someone in my hometown who formerly played with the Lyon College Pipe Band and was willing to teach me free of charge. I learned very quickly and went from a practice chanter to a full set of bagpipes in about 16 months.”

From there, the Jonesboro, Arkansas, native continued to learn from world-renowned instructors such as Willie McCallum, Angus MacColl, Sandy Jones and others at camps and workshops across the country. At 18, Reed attended Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas, on a bagpiping scholarship, joining the Lyon College Pipe Band under Pipe Major Jimmy Bell.

The musician, who earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Lyon College, decided he wanted to further his education at UM. The Department of Chemical Engineering at Ole Miss worked with him, allowing him to take the requisite undergraduate classes within a year to be admitted to the graduate program with a research assistantship.

“Distance was also an important part of my decision,” he said. “Oxford is close to Jonesboro, where my parents live, as well as Batesville, Arkansas, where (my fiancée) Carolyn was finishing her undergraduate degree at Lyon College. After one year here at Ole Miss, she enrolled in the new Master of Arts in Teaching program here at the university. She is now a sixth-grade teacher in Pope, and she just finished her master’s degree here.”

Two years ago, Reed’s bagpipe-playing skills began capturing the attention of those on campus.

“I am not entirely sure how the information traveled, but the Dean’s Office in the School of Engineering must have determined that I am a piper in addition to being an engineering grad student,” Reed said. “Before being contacted by the Dean’s Office to play for Commencement, I had practiced the pipes on campus a number of times in the Grove and on (the) Circle. I even played a few events (including a wedding and a memorial service in Paris-Yates Chapel) on campus.”

When the Dean’s Office asked Reed to play for Commencement, he was honored. Since 2017, the bagpipes have become something of a tradition for the engineering graduating class.

“For the past two years, I have had seniors and other grad students asking me if I would be playing for Commencement,” he said. “They have been very excited when I said, ‘yes.”’

While Reed makes bagpipes sound good, playing them is far from easy. It usually takes an aspiring piper about three to four years before he or she is ready to perform as a soloist, and a lifetime to perfect the craft.

“The bagpipe is a very difficult instrument to learn, because it requires precise finger work, breath control, rhythm, lots of coordination, understanding of reeds and, most importantly, years and years of diligent practice,” he said. “Learning the bagpipe requires that you spend about a year on a practice chanter before getting a full set of pipes, and it can be very discouraging at first because of how difficult it can be to make them sound properly. Even with over 12 years of experience, I am still learning.”

Reed’s academic achievements are just as impressive as his musicality. He was an invited speaker at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ annual meeting in Pittsburgh in fall 2018. He gave a podium presentation on his research on magnetic surfactants.

“I had never been to a conference before and thought that my research may only get a poster presentation, if anything at all,” he said. “It was a good experience, and I learned a lot about the research going on across the country.”

Other notable recognitions include winning first prize at the UM Graduate Student Council’s Research Symposium earlier this year.

“I already had most of the presentation made up from the AIChE meeting, so I entered on a whim,” Reed said. “I had no idea that I would end up winning.”

Two of Reed’s favorite engineering courses were John O’Haver’s Surfactants and Colloids classes.

“These two classes taught me that the chemistry and thermodynamics of surfaces are everywhere, particularly in detergents, personal care products, paints and other products you interact with every day,” he said. “These two classes have really changed how I look at the world and, in particular, how I look at shampoo bottles.”

Other engineering professors Reed praised are Sasan Nouranian, David Carroll and Mike Gill.

“Dr. Nouranian’s Advanced Transport Phenomena I & II classes were really difficult, but he broke down the material in a way that was much easier to understand,” he said. “Mr. Carroll and Mr. Gill both have extensive experience in industry and bring this perspective to their classes. They not only teach the material for their courses but also how different companies work, what they look for and what you will experience day to day in a chemical plant.”

Reed, who completed his coursework in May, hopes to finish his thesis and successfully defend it this summer. His research is on the relatively new field of magnetic surfactants, their properties and how these properties can be used to create low-energy separation processes.

“Surfactants are a class of chemicals that are everywhere, from soaps and detergents, to emulsions, to personal care lotions and creams, to paints and coatings, to cell walls, and even in your lungs,” he explained. “Surfactants tend to go to interfaces, such as the interface between air and water, reduce the interfacial tension and form aggregates called micelles above a certain concentration.”

The last property is what makes surfactants useful for separation processes (particularly as detergents), as they can encapsulate oils or other contaminants, allowing them to be separated from water.

“Magnetic surfactants are just surfactants (that) incorporate a magnetic moiety into the molecular structure, making the surfactant and its micelles responsive to magnetic fields,” he said. ”Right now, 15 percent of the global energy demand is for separation processes, much of this being energy-intensive processes such as distillation.

“The goal of this research is to develop magnetic surfactants (that) can be manipulated simply with magnetic fields, essentially allowing you to turn the separation process ‘on’ or ‘off’ by adding or removing the magnet, thereby reducing the amount of energy expended on routine separation processes.”

So far, magnetic surfactants have only been used successfully in small-scale niche applications, such as manipulating single strands of DNA and removing molecular contaminants from the surface of graphene. Scaling up these separation processes means developing magnetic surfactants that show high magnetic response, are economical and have a high degree of stability in water.

“This field is currently still in its infancy, but perhaps one day we will use magnetic surfactants to purify water or remediate oil spills in lakes and rivers,” Reed said. “After graduating, I plan on using my knowledge of surfactants and interfaces by pursuing a career in the chemical industry, probably in specialty chemicals, paints and coatings, or personal care products.”

Reed owns a Shetland sheepdog named Juliet, who loves going on walks at Lamar Park in Oxford. Outside of class, he enjoys playing golf, long-distance running and, of course, playing his bagpipes, as well as teaching bagpipe lessons.