Alum Stephen Kocheril developing expertise in cryogenic ion trapping

Stephen Kocheril

Growing up in a family with eight generations of physicians, Stephen Kocheril (BS, ’16) envisioned becoming a doctor and going to college somewhere beyond his hometown, Urbana-Champaign.

His parents convinced him to stay home and take advantage of the world-class university in his backyard, so the classical saxophone player who describes himself as an average student began his freshman year as a double major in music and chemistry.

“I was not good at math or physics, but I was good at chemistry,” said Kocheril, who is currently a chemistry PhD student at Brown University in Rhode Island.

As a new college freshman, he said he loved music, describing it as "pure joy.” But his thoughts about his major began to shift when he took advantage of an opportunity for freshmen to do undergraduate research in Ben McCall’s physical chemistry lab. Kocheril knew it would look good on medical school applications, and by the end of his freshman year, he was hooked on research and decided to focus on one major, chemistry.

He continued his undergraduate research over summer break. The thinking required to solve problems really suited him, said Kocheril, adding that he was good at figuring out how to make things work.

“That first summer was amazing. I was just having fun every day. It’s all new and it’s all so cool and interesting,” Kocheril said, recalling his excitement working with infrared lasers, radioactive materials, and more. “It’s the stuff of science fiction but it’s real. So, I was really hooked. Almost immediately. It really kind of became an obsession for me, doing spectroscopy, doing research.”

Kocheril continued research throughout his undergraduate career, summers included, and also worked in the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab in the School of Chemical Sciences. Kocheril credits his graduate student mentor in the McCall lab, Adam Perry (PhD, ’16), with preparing him well for graduate school.

“I really think that relationship is why I could go to graduate school and be successful,” Kocheril said. “I followed him around for three years. The reason I know how to do things to a large extent is he took the time to teach me things although he had his own stuff to do. I think it was instrumental.”

Undergraduate students and Stephen Kocheril stand around a small table in the atrium of CLSL.
Several undergraduate students met with Stephen Kocheril during his visit to campus.

After graduating with his bachelor’s in chemistry from UIUC, Kocheril spent a gap year at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he worked in a lab in the medical school, which confirmed his desire to pursue chemistry research rather than a medical degree.

“There are so many facets of chemistry you can go into. It’s a multi-faceted science. I’m never bored,” he said.

Kocheril left Chicago for graduate school at Brown University in Rhode Island and joined professor Lai-Sheng Wang’s lab, where he has excelled and carved out his own area of expertise involving cryogenic ion trapping, which uses a radio frequency electric field to trap an ion in space so it can be probed in various ways. He has focused on developing new versions of this technique, designing and building novel equipment that he and others are using in research in the Wang lab.

“Running them (ion traps) is easy but building them is hard. And now I’m one of those people who can build them, which has set me up and is part of why I am getting interest from industry and academia,” said Kocheril, who expects to finish his PhD by next spring. “It’s a skillset that transfers. People are really interested in using ion traps for quantum computing, information theory, this kind of stuff.”

Kocheril said he credits UIUC for preparing him well. In his gap year and at Brown, he could immediately contribute to work in the labs.

“I knew instantly what I needed to do to contribute. I really credit this university,” he said adding that he has also been well prepared for his graduate school classes. “I was so set up for success.”

Kocheril shared that fact with current UIUC undergraduates when he returned to campus this fall for a seminar as the recipient of Brown University Chemistry’s Graduate Ambassador Award.

The annual award is given to a small number of graduate students who have demonstrated excellence in teaching, research, and service. It provides funding for recipients to return to their alma mater to present a seminar. Kocheril presented on “Photoelectron Imaging of Laser Vaporized Cryogenically-Cooled Atomic Cluster Anions.”

During his visit, Kocheril met with professors in Chemistry at Illinois and with undergraduates, assuring them they have nothing to be nervous about after graduating from Illinois.

“I didn’t even appreciate it until I left, but the degree from here really means a lot to people outside of the institution. To just tell people I graduated from the U of I, they look at me differently,” said Kocheril, who now has a good problem, figuring out whether he will pursue opportunities in academia or industry. “I credit this university with everything on some level.”

— Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry