By Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry

In middle school, a new curiosity led Catherine Jalomo to put more effort into studying science.

“I learned that events at the molecular and atomic level are really what are driving processes all around us and I was amazed,” Jalomo said. “Chemistry is exciting because it reveals that the smallest things that we understand and can’t even always see are creating the universe that we live in, and that we can work with these things to make new things and be innovating participants in our world.”

Now, a second-year graduate student in the research groups of professors Steve Zimmerman and Cathy Murphy, Jalomo is working on functionalized gold nanoparticles for bioapplications.

She never imagined as a kid that she would be on a path to a PhD in chemistry.

A native of Fresno, Californa, Jalomo is a first-generation college student with a BS from Fresno Pacific University and the first among her three college-graduate siblings to pursue a graduate degree.

At FPU, a small liberal arts university, she was one of a handful of chemistry majors and was planning to become a high school teacher, because she didn’t believe she could be a scientist.

“Part of the reason was that I had never met a scientist. When I finally met my professors who actually went to graduate school, I started actually thinking about it as an option,” said Jalomo, who gained more confidence after presenting a summer research project at a conference. “My advisor told me that I would see some very impressive, intimidating projects, but that it was how I handled my project, even though I had limited resources, and that I still deserved to be at that conference. That is what gave me the courage to pursue graduate school.”

Jalomo had three preferences in a graduate school.

“Illinois Chemistry combines the three main things that I was looking for in a university: interesting, quality research; faculty and graduate students that I could connect with; and a climate that I believed I could thrive in,” she said. “As a first-generation minority student, I did not want to spend my time in graduate school at a place that sacrificed commitment to improving diversity and graduate student well-being for cutting edge research. At Illinois, I think I can have all three of the things that are important to me in a school.”

At Illinois, Jalomo has found a supportive academic community in the Department of Chemistry that especially helped her last year, navigating her first year in the PhD program.

“I am lucky enough to have several older graduate student mentors in the department. These people, like me, were first generation college students and are the first in their families to pursue a graduate degree. They inspire and motivate me simply because they are successful in their field,” Jalomo said. “Knowing that they are reaching milestones and making progress is very encouraging to me. It becomes even more meaningful when they reach out to help me with my projects, check in with me, and give me advice.”

When she finishes her PhD, Jalomo wants to work for a national lab or find a job in private industry, but she also hopes to be a mentor.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t even know becoming a scientist was an option, and I really want to make sure that students at all levels know that studying chemistry in graduate school and having a career in research is possible. My dream is to be a chemist and a mentor,” she said.

As a second-year graduate student, Jalomo is already getting experience mentoring others in the C2 program and ADJUST program, which are new initiatives in the Department this year.

She is also a Graduate College Fellow, Teaching Assistant and a scholar in the Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at Illinois, which supports doctoral students underrepresented in STEM. She is also the secretary for SACNAS and Friends at UIUC, an organization focused on creating community and providing professional development for minorities in science.