Alayna Johnson named a 2018-19 Goldwater Scholar


Illinois Chemistry sophomore Alayna Johnson has been named a Goldwater Scholar for the 2018-19 academic year.

This year’s 211 Goldwater Scholars were chosen from a pool of 1,280 students from more than 2,000 institutions across the country. Johnson is one of four University of Illinois students to receive the prestigious honor.

Describing the application process as “long but rewarding,” Johnson comments particularly on the challenge of the research essay, which requires students to propose a solution to a problem in their field, writing for a non-scientific audience.

Now a chemistry major studying materials research, Johnson originally came to Illinois for physics, but soon realized chemistry was a better fit.

As a freshman, she joined the lab of David Flaherty, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where her research with team members Daniel Bregante, Ami Patel, and Zeynep Ayla centers on the synthesis of epoxides, which are used to manufacture pharmaceuticals and plastics.

Noting the negative environmental impact of current methods of epoxide synthesis, Johnson elaborates on her team’s goals: “We’re hoping to engineer a catalyst that would allow industries to make epoxides in a new and greener manner. The project is a great combination of materials chemistry, catalysis, and environmental chemistry.”

Says Flaherty, “Alayna quickly developed skills in kinetic analysis and spectroscopy and has used these tools to show how we can tailor independently the electronic structure, porous structure, and hydrogen bonding interactions of inorganic materials to minimize the environmental impact of these oxidation reactions.”

Flaherty has been highly impressed with Alayna’s work, calling her “a talented researcher, a brilliant student, and a truly enjoyable person to work with.”

“In my career, I have rarely seen this strong set of skills in such a young student. Alayna demonstrates her unstoppable drive and motivation in the way she approaches her classwork and research and excels in both.”

Johnson’s experiences in the Flaherty lab also taught her more about herself and her research interests: “I've learned that while my interests certainly lie in pure science, an understanding of basic engineering and computational principles is invaluable.”

“The aspect I appreciate most about research is the intellectual freedom that comes with deciding which experiments to run, how to analyze the results, and what to do when they do not match the expected hypothesis. Within research, we get to experience the rare but incredibly rewarding feeling that comes from seeing the results of a well-designed experiment and learning something new about the world.”

Looking back, Johnson is pleased with the experiences that brought her here today: “Chemistry at Illinois was certainly not my plan, but I really feel like it's exactly where I belong.”

Looking ahead, Flaherty is confident for Johnson’s future, stating that she “will undoubtedly succeed in whatever career she chooses, and it’s an honor to be part of her education and training.”

See the full list of 2018 Goldwater Scholars here.


Christen Mercier