Getting to know: Illinois Chemistry graduate student leaders


Graduate students who are involved in leading the Department of Chemistry's various graduate student organizations in the 2022-23 academic year share memories from their first year in the PhD program and some advice for first-year graduate students. You can find more information about all the graduate student organizations on the Department website, including the Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee.

DCGSAC is a group of chemistry graduate students who are elected and function in an advisory role between the graduate students and the Department of Chemistry.


Portrait of Ericka Bruske on a dark gray background

Ericka Bruske

Fifth year grad student and member of the Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee (DCGSAC).

Advice for new graduate students: All the other first year students feel just like you so don't be afraid to be yourself and make as many friends as you can. Those friendships can be crucial for maintaining a positive work-life balance. 

Memory from first year: TAing was always portrayed as a burden, but I remember how much fun I had teaching lecture and office hours. I liked being able to calm anxious students and guide them towards enjoying learning again. Every time graduate school became overwhelming, teaching and laughing with those students grounded me. 


Portrait of Oliver Lin on a dark gray background

Oliver Lin

Rising fourth year grad student involved in leading Advising Junior Students Mentoring Network — a mentoring program that DCGSAC is organizing for the first time this academic year.

Advice for new graduate students: The process of getting a PhD will be hard in different ways to each one of you, yet definitely involves some sort of throwing papers into the ceiling and picking up all of them the next day. When life is hard in any aspect, this resilience will become harder and harder to maintain. I would recommend looking into resources on campus you feel you will need later into the study here and initiate communication with the professionals in your first year, even slightly is fine. The future you in need will appreciate you lowering the activation energy and making receiving help and support much easier.

Memory from first year: I wouldn’t forget the welcome pizza night at Professor Murphy’s house: casually chatting with IMP professors, new and old students about science and non-science, experiencing the culture, and feeling the autumn night at a new town that I am going to stay for many years!


Marya sitting at a work bench in a chemistry lab

Marya Ornelas

Third year grad student who is a co-leader of the UIUC Science Policy Group and the Chemical Biology Representative on the Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee (DCGSAC).

Advice for new graduate students: Follow your research interests! Think about what YOU want to get out of your graduate school experience and prioritize those goals. Ultimately, this is your experience, your life, and your research. Don't let others' opinions or expectations influence your decisions. Stay grounded and don't let the ups and downs of grad school pull you too far from your steady middle ground. Most importantly, have fun! Graduate school can be some of the most fun and exciting years, so don't forget to make time for your hobbies and your people.

Memory from first year: I remember when I first moved to Urbana during the summer of 2020. It was during the peak of the pandemic and national turmoil. I moved into a co-op with nine people I had never met before, in a city over 2,000 miles away from home. It was scary to say the least. But I also remember how excited I was to embark on this new journey, to meet the people that were going to be my friends and coworkers and neighbors, to start working on a research project that would culminate in a PhD thesis one day, to grow into the person that I saw myself becoming. As many of you are in a similar situation – starting a new life in a new place – I encourage you all to take it one day at a time. Take it all in. The start of grad school is a very formative and beautiful time – let yourself fall into it.


Portrait of Sophie McClain standing in an outdoor setting

Sophie McClain

A fifth-year graduate student who’s involved in leading the Joint Safety Team.

Advice for new graduate students: Seek out opportunities to stay involved in your hobbies and pick up new ones! Having these activities outside of the lab has given me a place to decompress when things get stressful or overwhelming and is critical in cultivating a healthy work life balance. It is also a great way to meet new people both inside and outside of the department.

Memory from first year: My strongest memories from first year are of making new connections. From study sessions and brunch outings with my cohort, to meetings with professors and older grad students to talk about science and research, to group lunch and brainstorming conversations with my new lab mates. Meeting and engaging with so many new people all at once definitely forced me to step outside of my comfort zone, but the people you meet your first year form the basis for an evolving network and support system that will be with you for your grad school career and beyond. Don't feel like you have to tackle grad school all on your own!


Head shot of Joe Forzano

Joe Forzano

A rising fourth-year graduate student who’s involved in leading OutInChem.

Advice for new graduate students: Find your people. Graduate school will inevitably have its ups and downs, and the thing that makes it all possible is sharing it with good people. Your support network will be there to celebrate your successes and keep you motivated when things aren't working, and these are equally necessary to have a prosperous PhD. Being at such a large university, we have the ability to build networks outside of the chemistry department (in addition to those within) that make it easier to forget about work and pursue other passions when you are feeling burned out. Take advantage of clubs and organizations on campus to branch out!

Memory from first year: Every Sunday evening my friends and I would go to Guido's in downtown Champaign for trivia, snacks, laughs and beers. I had something fun to look forward to every week - and we still do weekly trivia now!


Head shot of Katie Brady

Katie Brady 

Rising fifth-year graduate student who is involved in leading the Young Chemists Committee.

Advice for new graduate students: When you join a lab, don’t be afraid to ask questions to more experienced lab members because most are willing to help, and it can save you lots of time. Outside of lab, I recommend putting the time into getting to know your peers, making friends, and finding your hobbies in town. Using this bit of extra time before you join a lab to build yourself a support network with people and the things you enjoy will help get you through grad school down the road.

Memory from first year: Joining the Chan Lab was a good memory from my first year because the graduate students in the lab were all so welcoming and supportive. My officemates and I bonded through afternoon snack breaks at McDonald’s and all getting betta fish for our desks.


Head shot of Sophia Marcellus in an outdoor setting with green leaves of trees in background

Sophia Marcellus

Second-year graduate student who is chair of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Sophia said the group's mission is providing an affirming and supportive space for Black students and other minority students in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and allied fields. The organization is dedicated to assisting Black, other minority students, and professionals in fully realizing their potential in academic, professional, and entrepreneurial pursuits in chemistry, chemical engineering, and allied fields.

Advice for new graduate students: Graduate school is a difficult adjustment for anyone so start creating healthy boundaries when navigating work and your personal life, it works wonders in the long run.

Memory from first year: My favorite memory is from Pizza class (Chem 591) where we had an activity to build a sturdy tower using only the supplies given to us and my team won! 


Portrait of Anita Wo standing outdoors in front of trees showing fall colors

Anita Wo

Rising fourth-year inorganic chemistry graduate student who is involved in leading the Women Chemists Committee and the Student Wellness Coalition.

Advice for new graduate students: Be proactive in forming and maintaining relationships with older grad students! They provided me with invaluable advice ranging from group joining to adjusting to life at UIUC. These individuals have become my mentors and offered their support throughout my graduate career. Additionally, first year can be very overwhelming since you have to juggle multiple responsibilities. Remember that you are doing your best so be kind to yourself!

Memory from first year: I have fond memories of exploring local events, visiting the corn maze, and attending many potlucks with students from my cohort. I met and became friends with some awesome people!  


Sagnik Chakribarti standing next to a case holding a professional soccer league trophy

Sagnik Chakrabarti

A rising fourth-year graduate student who leads the International Chemists Association.

Advice for first-year graduate students: Year one of grad school can be intimidating - and that's okay! Find a supportive group of friends because you will need people to celebrate with and also complain to. Also, two other things I strongly believe in - never have an elevated sense of self-importance and remember not to compare your PhD journey with anyone else.

Memory from first year: Coming to a new country and getting to know my cohort and lab mates. Some of them have helped me grow immensely as a person and a chemist and I am sure these bonds are as strong as B-O or Si-O bonds.