Getting to know: Graduate student Danielle Loving


A third-year chemistry PhD student from Georgia, Danielle Loving is a 2022 National Science Foundation Fellow, a mentor in the C2 program, and a research associate in the lab of Professor Martin Burke.

When did you discover you enjoy chemistry?

“I had a really good AP chemistry teacher, who told me maybe this is something I should start pursuing. As a first-generation college student, she helped me get into my undergraduate institution, which was Mercer University, a small private liberal arts university in central Georgia. And from there I had some really great research advisors in undergrad.

Did you do any undergraduate research?

Yes. With David Goode [Illinois chemistry alum (PhD, ’07, Hergenrother)] I was able to start synthesizing a library of potential biofilm inhibitors. That project was when I really started to focus in on organic chemistry.”

And then with Professor Adam Kiefer [Illinois chemistry alum (PhD, ’08, Shapley)] I was able to go to artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities in Peru and Ghana and try to help understand the extent of mercury pollution that occurs as a result from the mining process in those areas.”

So, I got to experience two different aspects of chemistry. But the main driver of why I like to do chemistry is the end goal of helping people. I like the day to day of doing organic research. In these research experiences, I realized I really wanted to learn as much as I could and be the best chemist I could possibly be, if I really wanted to make an impact on society and the best way to do that was going to grad school. And I also very much enjoy learning about chemistry so, I figured it would be a really good experience.”

Tell us about your first experience on the Illinois campus “test driving” the Burke lab as a Snyder Scholar the summer before your senior year.

“So, I kind of got to test drive the lab a little bit.  And I was able to work on trying to make a derivative of amphotericin B, a current last resort antifungal agent, which our lab currently utilizes in two different projects, trying to make less toxic yet potent antifungal derivatives, and also, since it has unique ion channel forming properties, the Burke lab is using it to treat cystic fibrosis.”

What else, besides that experience, made you choose the Illinois chemistry graduate program?

“It felt very friendly, very collaborative and it just felt like a nice place to do science.”

What research are you involved in now as a graduate student in the Burke lab?

“The Burke lab is very big on developing Lego-like chemistry to make chemistry as simple as possible. And one of the reactions that won a Nobel prize is the Suzuki-Miyaura cross coupling reaction, so that works really well for what we consider as flat molecules, but once you start incorporating more three dimensionality to these different building blocks, or molecules, it’s very tough for the reaction to work and for these molecules to get stitched together and coupled. So I work on trying to incorporate automation and computational chemistry as a way to optimize a very challenging Suzuki-Miyaura cross-coupling… It would be another reaction to add to the toolkit of reactions.”

Are you enjoying this challenging work?

“Yes. It is definitely really challenging, and you learn a lot of different chemistry techniques... There’s a lot of different types of chemistry that’s a part of it. So, you kind of have to know a little bit of everything in order to accomplish the project, a little bit of chemical engineering, so one of my colleagues…helped build one of the machines to run all the different coupling reactions…. So, I’ve had to learn a lot, and it’s been very challenging, but it’s been a very interdisciplinary environment. And I definitely like that.”

As a mentor in three different student organizations (Sloan, ADJUST, and C2) and mentor to undergraduates in the Burke lab, why do you enjoy mentoring?

“I definitely like sharing my experiences with trying to get through undergrad and graduate school with others and trying to help out people who definitely need some help trying to go through the journey… It helps me refine skills and teach things a lot better. And definitely it helps me refine my own techniques and also my own knowledge... I’ve had some really good research advisors and an AP chemistry teacher, and they are definitely the reason why I am here, so I definitely want to pay it back helping others.”

What do you want to do after your PhD?

“The current plan is to be an academic professor and principal investigator at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution... I have done some teaching here (as a grad student in an advanced organic lab course), and I definitely enjoy it. So, that was fun, and I definitely want to continue teaching.”

Do you know what type of research you want to pursue in the future?

“To be determined. I’ve got a lot to learn and try to figure out what I really like. I keep a notebook with me and write down ideas I have or new things I learn. One day Marty (Burke) showed us his journals from his PhD with all the different research ideas that he came up with. So, I think all of us (in the research group) have started to get journals and keep it with us. I write to do lists, things I learned, things I need to go back and read up on.”

What do you like to do outside the lab and graduate work?

“I like to bake and cook a lot. And hiking. I used to go hiking a lot in Georgia with my friends.”

When she has time, Danielle enjoys traveling from campus to Chicago, which she visited for the first time as a graduate student.

“Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I’m a big foodie, so every time I visit, I try to find a good restaurant to go to. There’s this one restaurant, The Purple Pig… the food was amazing. I remember having a tuna tartare that was phenomenal…. Everything there is just phenomenal.”

What has been your greatest adventure, so far?

“I got to spend a night in an Amazonian resort (during a research trip), and we got to do a night walk (with flashlights) through the Amazon and go out on the river looking for caimans (and saw some). That was probably one of my highlights of all the trips I have ever taken. It was a lot of fun, but it was also scary.”