New class of graduate students joining Chemistry at Illinois

Date

05/19/21
Enleyona Weir

The Department of Chemistry is welcoming its newest class of graduate students, a historic group that includes more women than men for the first time in program history.

A total of 62 students comprise this graduate student class (61 PhD candidates and one Master of Science in Teaching Chemistry). That total also includes two student deferrals from Fall 2020. That breaks down to 46 domestic students and 16 international students.

Of these 62 students, 12 (26 percent) are students underrepresented in the chemical sciences, which is an increase of 3 percent over last year. And for the first time ever, there are more women (32) than men (30) in an incoming class of graduate students. In comparison, last year's incoming class of 59 graduate students, included 37 men and 21 women.

Also in this year's incoming class is Enleyona Weir, who was the department's first St. Elmo Brady Scholar in summer of 2019. The Brady Scholars program provides summer research opportunities at Illinois for undergraduates from Tougaloo College, Howard University, Fisk University, and Tuskegee University—four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) whose chemistry programs were founded by Illinois alumnus St. Elmo Brady, who, in 1916, became the first African American to receive a PhD in chemistry in the U.S. The scholar program is supported by a generous gift from Dow Chemical and the Graduate College’s Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP).

Weir said becoming familiar with the Illinois Chemistry graduate program through her experience as a St. Elmo Brady Scholar two years ago was the reason she chose to apply to the PhD program.

"I knew from that experience that if I continued to pursue chemistry at an advanced level, UIUC would be the institution," she said.

Learn more about Weir and some of the other graduate students in this year's incoming class.

Enleyona Nickayela Weir 

Hometown: I am from Portland, Jamaica- an island girl. I migrated to the United States for school in 2017 on a full-ride scholarship to Tougaloo College.

Undergraduate institution: Tougaloo College in Mississippi; chemistry major with an emphasis in Mathematics 

Favorite college course: That’s difficult because it is between calculus and organic chemistry but chemistry trumps math.

Undergraduate research: During Summer 2020, I did my internship at Merck as a Discovery Chemist Intern investigating potential chemical structures to inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 3CL protease by utilizing ChemDraw and MOE to evaluate and optimize molecular interactions as well as designing potential synthetic routes for the prioritized chemical compounds.

Best thing about chemistry:  The application process. It keeps you active in making both prompt and process decisions keeping both the left and right sides of my brain active. I like to cook and doing chemistry every day reminds me of cooking; taking all these raw materials that you never thought could make something and mold a compound that can make a difference in someone's life.

What are you looking forward to as a graduate student? Working in the labs, teammates and team building, advanced research machinery and tools, publishing papers with some of the world's incredible minds, and making long-term friends and a community I can call home.

What else do you enjoy? I enjoy traveling, watching TV shows, cycling, cooking, photography, and video editing.

Why Illinois Chemistry? I was already familiar with the program because of my experience as a St. Elmo Brady Scholar in summer 2019. I knew from that experience that if I continued to pursue chemistry at an advanced level, UIUC would be the institution. That summer, I did not feel alone with the project assigned because there is someone there to ask for assistance, even if it is from a different group. UIUC also offered multiple research projects that I am interested in as well as it is a top-ranked chemistry department; hence upon completing my degree, I am sure I will be able to land the dream job.

Head shot of Romans Grant
Romans Grant

Romans Grant

Hometown: I am from Portland, Jamaica.

Undergraduate institution:  I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship to study chemistry at Tougaloo College. Majored in chemistry with a minor psychology. 

Favorite college course: Differential equations. I was fascinated how math brought my imaginations to life. 

Undergraduate research: Use of AMBER molecular dynamics suite to study the effect that 3-hydroxyflavone and 7-hydroxyflavone have on the amyloid-beta peptide. The drug candidates were used because previous experimental results showed that Morin (the base compound) has good therapeutic benefits. The research was a temperature-dependent study. The temperatures used to investigate the strand: 277K, 298K, and 310K at 100 ns. After careful analysis, it was discovered that the binding affinity of the dimeric strand was reduced at 310K.

Best thing about chemistry: I love to understand the fundamental characteristics of life, and I believe it is impossible to understand these characteristics without chemistry. I believe understanding the behavior of the atoms is the best approach to explain biological abnormalities, rocket combustion, and even how the forces of nature truly work.

What else do you enjoy? Music, meeting new people, jogging, learning about new cultures and beliefs. I cannot compare to the cooking expertise of my mom, but I like to cook. I love outdoor activities, and I'm interested in learning French.

Why Illinois Chemistry? After meeting with faculty members last semester, I already feel at home, and I was reassured about the warmth of the UIUC family after meeting again for graduate departmental information this semester. My love for chemistry and my desire to get the best education at an institution I will love make UIUC my ultimate choice.

Kayla Landers sitting on a stone-column railing with a city skyline in the background
Kayla Landers

Kayla Landers

Hometown: I grew up in Lancaster, California, a city in the deserts of Southern California. I spent most of my childhood there and moved to Long Beach for college. As a child, I planned to become a lawyer and you could not separate me from my books and journals. I never imagined I would become a scientist. 

Undergraduate institution: California State University, Long Beach; graduated with a BS in chemistry.

What changed your aspirations from a legal career to chemistry? My journey with chemistry started like everyone else's, in a general high school chemistry course, and I hated almost every second of it. I found it challenging and frustrating, being that it was the one subject I couldn't "master." As the year progressed, my experience slightly improved, but I was still eager for the inevitable end of our relationship. But, in the second semester of that year, I walked into my classroom and projected on the screen were images of the first Black woman to receive her PhD in Chemistry, Dr. Marie Maynard Daly. I read the caption on the screen, in complete awe of this Black woman who not only survived high school chemistry but went on to obtain her PhD willingly. My chemistry teacher noticed and came beside me and said, "You know... that could be you..." I had no confidence in his statement, but it planted a seed that maybe my fear of science could be replaced with a joy and mastery, maybe I could "belong" in STEM like this woman did. And this was the confidence boost I needed to enroll in AP chemistry the following year and eventually pursue a degree in biochemistry (turned chemistry). 

Undergraduate research: My Honors thesis focused on the diastereoselective synthesis of prodrug nucleotides (ProTides) functioning as antiviral therapeutics using chiral metal Lewis acid catalysts. The primary research question was: how can we preferentially synthesize one diastereomer over another in a simple and cost-effective fashion?

I also conducted research about transformative student experiences in CSULB’s Honors Program. We conducted a qualitative study that assessed experiences Honors students considered “transformative” throughout their education and provided recommendations to the program about how to create more opportunities for these experiences.

Lastly, I worked with a team that studied models for cultivating systems of support for Honors students of diverse backgrounds and provided recommendations to Honors staff, faculty, and administrators at the National Collegiate Honors Conference in Boston, MA. The primary focus of the research was to identify advising methods that promote a model of inclusive excellence and belonging in Honors programs.

Best thing about chemistry? My love for chemistry stems from a love for asking questions. I have always been inquisitive, and I find joy in the nature of chemistry to produce twice as many questions for each answer I arrive to.  

What are you looking forward to as a graduate student? The intellectual rigor that grad school will present along with an elevated academic camaraderie in comparison to undergrad. Also, the opportunity to continue to develop my identity as a Black woman in STEM while helping younger students do the same is something that brings me excitement and joy!

What else do you enjoy? I enjoy exercise, cooking, writing poetry, sleeping and adventures with friends. Also, mentorship and serving underrepresented students in STEM. I consider this my “passion project.” I dedicate much of my time to working with my mentees, helping them develop into the scientists and engineers they are working to become. Very few things bring me quite as much joy as watching the cohort of students coming after me succeed and own their identities in STEM.

Why Illinois Chemistry? Of all the programs I considered, UIUC was the most dedicated, intentional, and consistent in their recruitment of me. Staff, faculty, and students continuously reached out to me throughout recruitment. I felt that my goals and dreams for myself in and outside of research were valued and that there would be a plethora of resources made available to me to help me reach my goals. I also loved the kindness and support I already received from current graduate students as I navigated the recruiting season.

Head shot of Yusuff Moshood
Yusuff Moshood

Yusuff Moshood  

Hometown: I'm a Nigerian but experienced childhood in Ouagadougou-the state capital of Burkina Faso. From a family of six, I am the only one to have had access to formal education beyond high school, a classical first-generation degree holder. I have trained myself to appreciate research, to give more representation to the underrepresented minorities in STEM.

Undergraduate institution: The University of Ibadan; the first and the best university in Nigeria where I bagged my BS degree with distinction. Currently, I intern with the theoretical chemistry group at the Université Grenoble Alpes France; in the last phase of fulfilling the conditions for the award of a Master’s degree in Chemistry for Life Science.

Favorite college course: Symmetry, Group Theory and Molecular Spectroscopy.

Undergraduate research: My undergraduate research focused on the improvement of the economic worth of local and commonly available Alizarin dye via a computational study at DFT level using Spartan software. We examined the impact of substituents on the spectroscopic and molecular properties of Alizarin dye. A series of electron-withdrawing and electron-donating substituents were accessed at different positions on the anthraquinone skeleton. The latter, the vast majority of which were auxochromes led a bathochromic shift of the calculated UV-Vis spectra but in the range that was insufficient to mediate a change in colour/shade. The HOMO-LUMO band gap did show that most of the trials could be active as photosensitizers.

For my Master's degree, I developed a passion for metals in biology and I am undertaking a computational study at DFT level with Gaussian, Orca and CP2K to research on a [NiFe]-hydrogenase mimic synthesized here in Grenoble. The investigation will back up the experimental claims that this novel mimic could successfully reduce CO2, besides its proton reduction ability. This development could help to reduce the level of CO2 which is a greenhouse gas and convert it to a more useful derivative.

Best thing about chemistry? Chemistry is all-encompassing. I grew up loving the natural sciences and it was the area that could afford me the luxury of having a touch of every area-Physics, Biology and Mathematics.

What are you looking forward to as a graduate student? I look forward to an enabling environment to contribute and learn towards being an independent researcher.  To be equipped with the necessary problem-solving skills which I could subsequently transfer via teaching and research. And more generally, the culture and the environment. To meet new people and do new things on a wholly different continent. To experience the power of ‘I’, the orange and blue color and all.

What else do you enjoy? I venerate new languages. I have learnt French above intermediate level and I take basic Spanish. I make sketches and caricatures when I am bored. I love soccer as a fan (not all that great as a player though). I make local delicacies.

Why Illinois Chemistry? A post on LinkedIn about UIUC recruitment session for the underrepresented minorities in Science by a graduate student of the department- Safiyah Muhammad initiated the process of coming to UIUC. And that was some months after I worked with VMD and discovered it was built at the Beckman Institute. I started to look for more data on the grounds that UIUC is by all accounts the best citadel for my doctoral program. The multidisciplinary research choices and how they are focused on problem-solving left me with no different choices. I love where I could appreciate different areas regardless of whether I have an individual research interest. I accessed the web pages of individual inorganic/theoretical chemistry research groups where I got more information. The new and current advances in different research areas further fueled my interest and I was at any point ready to join the department. The one-on-one meetings with professor Lisa Olshansky, during the recruitment session before my application was convincing enough to make UIUC the spot to satisfy my aspiration of studying in a research-intensive environment.

Brittany Prempin

Hometown: I was born and raised in an Afro-Caribbean family in South Florida.

Undergraduate institution:  Duke University; majored in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry. A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

Favorite college course: Biophysical chemistry.

Undergraduate research: In my junior fall, I conducted research for Prof. Jennifer Roizen in organic synthesis. Junior spring through senior spring, I worked with Prof. Matthew L. Becker in functional biomaterials.

Best thing about chemistry: Synthesis is like a puzzle, and I enjoy solving puzzles. 

What else do you enjoy? I enjoy roller skating, drawing, and sewing.

Why Illinois Chemistry? UIUC had the greatest amount of diversity within the chemistry student population and the types of chemical research. 

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