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Over the past year, Vilas Menon '02 has studied the relationship between the French language and political power in the former French colony of Senegal. He has also designed a chemical engineering plant that uses bacteria to decompose raw mustard gas into nontoxic materials. And when he graduates Saturday, he'll receive two degrees and give an address to his class as the winner of the George Wharton Pepper Prize.

“The broad spectrum keeps me entertained and interested,” says Menon, who has conducted two senior honors theses while earning a degree in chemical engineering and a bachelor of arts degree with majors in International Studies and French. “The wide exposure encouraged me to develop a wide range of interests.”

Menon speaks English, French, and Hindi fluently and has been studying Chinese for the past three semesters. His exposure to a variety of languages and cultures led him to pursue the research for his honors theses.

Menon was born in Chandirgarh, India, and has lived with his diplomat parents in Senegal, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. The three years he spent as a child in Senegal helped him decide on honors research about colonial Senegal.

“During the 19th century, French colonialists began teaching French to the Senegalese natives,” he says. “My thesis explores the reasons for this as well as the precautions taken by the French to ensure that their own language could not be used against them in the political sphere.”

Menon adds that an internship last summer at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands led him to pursue his chemical engineering honors thesis.

“What really got me involved was the fact that it was a political issue,” he says.

Javad Tavakoli, associate professor and head of chemical engineering, says Menon fulfilled everything he set out to accomplish, including developing a full design package of the plant, including safety precautions, layout diagrams, hazard analyses, and material selection. He presented his research at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' National Spring Conference in New Orleans.

“He's done a great job,” Tavakoli says, adding that he's impressed with Menon's ability to understand the social impact of his research.

Roxanne Lalande, professor and head of foreign languages and literatures, says Menon, whose native language is Hindi, wrote his entire thesis in French, despite the fact that most students choose to write their honors theses in their native language.

“It was quite an exceptional feat to do that,” she says. “It's an excellent thesis. He even wrote it in literary tense … It's really been a pleasure working with him.”

Lalande, who accompanied Menon when he presented his findings at the 16th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research last month, says that while many students would be overwhelmed by three degrees, “He has the intellectual ability to do this as well as the seriousness of purpose.”

In turn, Menon has high praise for both of his advisers. “I think their dedication is a testimony to the Lafayette faculty,” he says.

Menon also has conducted EXCEL research with Tavakoli and Olga Duhl, associate professor of foreign languages and literatures, and has high praise for the academic environment at Lafayette. “I think one of Lafayette College's strengths is its willingness to let students pursue their interests on their own,” he says.

Menon published an article on his research with Tavakoli and two other students, “Solar Disinfection of Water,” in Proceedings of the Third NSF International Symposium and Technology Expo Small Drinking Water and Wastewater Systems. He made a presentation on “The Trials and Rewards of Translating Old French Texts” at the 15th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

After graduating, Menon will begin working as an assistant pharmaceutical scientist for Akzo Nobel in West Orange, N.J.

Menon has received the Petrie Prize in French, the Eugene P. Chase Phi Beta Kappa Prize, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Donald F. Othmer Award, the Donald U. Noblett Prize in Chemical Engineering, and the William G. McLean Tau Beta Pi Prize. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Tau Beta Pi engineering society.

Menon participated in the Technology Clinic team that gave a report on increasing the community's awareness of the nonprofit group ProJeCt of Easton through advertising, logo design, website development, and adoption of a new name, which the organization implemented. He is a second-year head resident adviser, Writing Associate, and student leadership intern for the Lafayette Leadership Education Committee. An actor in College Theater productions, Menon served on the Lafayette Activities Forum executive board and as a peer tutor for math and chemistry. He is a member of Lafayette's Asian Culture Association.

Categorized in: Academic News