As a member of the newest class of Illinois chemistry PhD students officially launching their graduate careers in August, Autumn Cook relishes the opportunity to get involved in meaningful chemistry research.
“UIUC is a hub of brilliant PIs and being able to work under and learn from them is a tremendous opportunity,” said Cook, who graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, with a BS in chemistry and a BA in gender, women’s and sexuality studies. “I can't wait to be a part of the massive Illinois community as a graduate student. I'm really excited to meet other people who are just as fascinated by chemistry as I am. The research that happens at UIUC is groundbreaking and impactful. I want to play a role in that meaningful research, and I'm excited that I'm actually going to be able to as a graduate student.”
A Meyerhoff Scholar and member of Honors College at UMBC, Cook did undergraduate research with professor Joseph Bennett, designing and characterizing new ferroelectric and antiferroelectric functional materials through the use of density-functional theory and open-source software packages to derive information about group theory and run symmetry-based analysis on high-performance computing architecture.
Cook also found time to become an advocate for all students, getting involved in efforts to support survivors of sexual assault and helping transgender students find and build community.
On the back of UMBC campus ID cards are essential emergency resources, including health, counseling, sexual assault and suicide prevention helplines – an idea suggested by Cook through a student advocacy initiative to better prevent and respond to sexual assault and violence. Cook also launched an LGBTQ+ Student Union weekly trans discussion group and restarted a trans discussion group at the campus Women’s Center.
“Being an advocate for both myself and others is part of the reason that I decided to get a second Bachelor's degree in gender, women's + sexuality studies in addition to my BS in chemistry. I am a firm believer in the doctrine of leaving somewhere better than how you found it, and I've found that being an advocate for transgender community members often allows me to serve the community within a unique niche. I'm hoping to be able to use my advocacy experience in addition to the formal education that I received during my time in undergrad to positively affect the UIUC community and to further advancements in equity for transgender and LGBTQ+ people,” said Cook, who has already connected with LGBTQ+ community members at UIUC and within the department. “I'm really excited to be a part of the ever-evolving landscape that is UIUC.”
As a high school student in their hometown of Rockville, Maryland, just 30 minutes outside Washington D.C., it was YouTube videos that first drew Cook’s interest to chemistry.
“YouTube is rife with content creators that do some really cool chemistry, and I wanted to not only potentially do the same experiments they did, but truly understand what was going on and why it happened,” Cook said. “That child-like wonder hasn't left me, and I hope it never does. As my understanding of the chemical world has deepened though, I've gained a greater appreciation for why things happen rather than the results of things happening and chemistry education. I want to not only continue to do cool, flashy and impressive reactions, I want to understand why they work, and to discover other amazing things we are able to do and share my love of chemistry with others along the way.”
At UMBC, Cook not only continued to cultivate that love of chemistry and a deeper appreciation for the research but also discovered a passion for teaching chemistry while tutoring other students and working as a teaching assistant.
“I love tutoring and teaching not only because it is a way for me to share my love of chemistry with others, and hopefully spark that love of chemistry within them too, but also a way for me to give back and pay forward the help that I received. It's also a really gratifying experience to see someone's reaction when all the puzzle pieces click into place and they understand the concept,” Cook said. “I was extremely lucky to have a fantastic chemistry teacher in high school who didn't give up on me despite the amount of trouble that I was having with AP Chemistry. Eventually, everything clicked, and I was able to do really well in the class, well enough to help others who were having trouble.”
Now, just a few months before their first year of graduate school begins, Cook is looking forward to experiencing research at a large R1 university.
“UIUC's chemistry department is massive, and the research that is done is extremely wide reaching into adjacent and related fields. I want to be a part of the research that encompasses chemistry, but also draws upon the knowledge derived from interdisciplinary exchanges, which is one of the things UIUC Chemistry excels at,” Cook said, explaining why the graduate chemistry program at UIUC was their top choice. “UIUC is also a massive institution as a whole, and I think it's going to be a really fun experience meeting so many new people. UIUC also has too many rock-star researchers to list that I would love to work with, and the virtual visitation visit, although probably not as fun as an in-person visit, was fantastic and engaging, especially with the trivia the night before the real program started.”