A world traveler, photographer and musician, Nick Pino’s dream is to live in the big city, but it was the human connections that drew him to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to earn his PhD in chemistry, and it is those same personal connections that he says make this department unique.
A graduate student from the small town of Tyaskin, Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay, Pino graduated from Cornell University with a BA in chemistry and chemical biology and decided to move “to the cornfields,” as he says, rather than the big city after making connections on the U. of I. campus during a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in mechanical engineering.
“For a variety of reasons, I’ve always wanted to live in large cities,” Pino said. “When I came here (for the REU), a lot of people remember me being very vocal about how I was going to Northwestern University, and I’d already made up my mind. The problem was that I actually really liked this department because of the people here. The research is fine, too, but our department is uniquely and distinctly social and supportive, especially between the students. So I ate my hat and came to the corn fields, knowing that even though it would be another five years away from the city, it was going to be a great time.”
Pino works in Professor Jefferson Chan’s lab, developing small molecule tools for both detection and donation of analytes in biological systems. He’s also been involved in some collaboration with other labs doing theranostic applications of nanoparticles in vivo.
Pino is also a member of the department’s Diversity Committee, a group of faculty, students, post-doctorate researchers, and staff who are trying to increase diversity in the department and provide resources for under-represented minorities.
“I really think some of the recommendations we’ve made have been meaningful,” Pino said, referencing some new recruiting and funding initiatives. “Due to recruiting practices that we’ve discussed in our meetings regarding minority-focused conferences and the St. Elmo Brady relationship with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, we’ve seen marked increases in racially diverse applicants. The next step is to illustrate our community as a healthy and welcoming one. If we can do that, I suspect we will be able to increase enrollment, ultimately moving toward demographic parity… There are so many reasons that we should have diverse communities. We should look around and acknowledge that everyone deserves the opportunity to do the great things we do.”
Although some of his personal interests have taken a back seat while working toward his PhD, like horse-back riding and playing the oboe and bassoon, he is found an outlet for his interest in business, working as a member of Illinois Business Consulting, an organization in the Gies College of Business that offers students real world experience in consulting.
“We have real clients with real problems, and they trust us to advise them on solutions,” Pino said. “In my two semesters in IBC, I’ve spent one as a consultant working on funding, branding, marketing, and organizational structure for a non-profit devoted to the empowerment of women in business, and I’ve spent one as the project manager leading a team illustrating the competitive landscape, conducting market needs assessment, and advising on product development for an InsurTech company.”
Mark down more traveling as a definite pursuit after Pino earns his doctorate. He has traveled to more than 31 countries already.
“It’s a personal goal to always keep that number higher than my age,” Pino said. “I also love photography which pairs well with the travel. I can also be found taking photos of flowers, squirrels, or whatever else I can find around campus. I keep saltwater fish, some of whom you can come see any time in 278 RAL if you need a break from research.”
Pino said he and his fellow graduate students have good camaraderie.
“We eat lunch together, we go to coffee together, we visit our friends’ labs to say ‘Hi,’ multiple times a day,” he said. “I won’t lie, science wouldn’t be as fun without the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with when I do it. After all, that’s why I came here.”
In the future, Pino said he’s thinking about combining his love of chemistry and business.
“I’ll probably do some soul searching during #COVIDquarantine,” he said about his future career plans. “I’ve always been a fan of business. My dad is a business owner, and I’ve always been entrepreneurial of mind… A PhD teaches you a lot of things about a very specific topic. It also teaches you some techniques that are important to being able to do chemistry research. That said, my PhD is much less about how I’m going to spend the rest of my life making fluorescent HNO-responsive probes for the study of a fleeting reactive nitrogen species in biological systems. It’s more about how I developed the mental skills and capacity to solve problems and think about them fundamentally.”