Senior enjoys hands-on experience as undergraduate researcher

Robert Cook stands in front of some of the cherry blossom trees at Japan House on the UIUC campus.

A senior in Chemistry at Illinois, Robert Cook knew in elementary school that he wanted to pursue a STEM career, and by high school in Joliet, Illinois, he narrowed his focus to physics or engineering.

Then, he took Chemistry 101 as a freshman at UIUC.

“This is kind of fun. And it’s still science,” Cook recalls thinking as a freshman.

Now, Cook is a chemistry major, an undergraduate researcher in the lab of chemistry Professor Lisa Olshansky and poised to graduate in May with hopes of possibly landing a chemistry job in industry. But he is keeping his options open and hasn’t ruled out graduate school in the future and likes the idea of teaching at the high school or college level after a job in industry.

“I think I enjoy the science field when it comes to things that are really up close, like the exact atoms and molecules for why things happen. And things just made more sense for me,” he said, explaining his pivot to chemistry. “I love problem solving. That’s another reason I fell for chemistry. Trial-and-error is probably my favorite way of learning.”

After the pandemic shifted classes online the latter half of his freshman year through his sophomore year, Cook returned to campus as a junior and got involved in a peer-to-peer mentoring program called C2 – Chemical Science Through Community. The experience matched him with a chemistry graduate student mentor and spurred him to get involved in research in the Olshansky lab.

“I enjoy the lab. It gave me the opportunity to test out lab techniques and do other things I might want to do in my career. From the experience in the Olshansky lab, I think I really do enjoy doing wet lab work and being in a lab doing research. If I get a chemistry job, I would really hope it’s something to do with mixing chemicals, making new colors, making things explode,” Cook said with a laugh. “I would love to do research.”

C2 also gave him the opportunity to attend the 2022 conference of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. That experience in Orlando was cut short when Hurricane Ian rolled across Florida, but he squeezed in two days of conference events and networking.

His C2 mentor, second-year chemistry PhD student Danielle Loving from the Burke Group, gave him tips on how to navigate the conference, make connections and follow up with people after the event. He has enjoyed the supportive, low key, low stress community of undergraduates and graduate students in the group.

“It has been very helpful,” he said.

Another chemistry PhD student has mentored him in the lab, guiding him in learning to contribute to actual research, and that is where, he said, he has experienced the most growth by applying what he has been learning in his chemistry classes.

“It was so nice when they would ask me a question, or something would go wrong, and I would be like, ‘I learned this in my class. I know this. I actually know the work around, or understand how this works, because of my classes,’” Cook said. “Having it in front of you, seeing the mixture happen in front of your eyes, it was very different from having it told to you or reading it in a textbook.”

Cook said undergraduate research has been an eye-opening experience. In lab classes, he said, students do experiments with rules and predetermined steps.

In the Olshansky lab, the experiments are more “open ended,” he said, explaining that things are not predetermined, and you are working on solutions.

“Having that hands-on problem solving and being able to see how quickly people around me could do problem-solving, I think was a nice little wake up call,” said Cook, who explained that he has been part of energy conversion research in the Olshansky lab. “Which I thought was really cool to learn about because I’m all about energy conservation and things of that nature. And I have really been enjoying it. I am taking an environmental chemistry class right now and I have also been enjoying that.”

His primary career goal is finding a career he enjoys, and he said the School of Chemical Sciences career office has opened his eyes to the wide variety of jobs Illinois chemistry alumni have landed.

“I like the idea of energy conservation,” he said.

Away from the lab and classes, Cook enjoys video games, skateboarding, and designing clothing and stickers, which is developing into a side business. And his favorite class beyond chemistry is Japanese. He’s in his fourth semester of learning the language and hopes to travel to Japan.

“It has been a lot of fun. I really enjoy Japanese. I definitely will study it more after college,” he said.

One of his favorite places on campus is Noyes Laboratory where he took Chem 101 and not only discovered the science he enjoys the most, but also met his girlfriend. When he graduates in May, he said he will miss the people and the diversity here on campus the most.

“I like learning different experiences, viewpoints, and perspectives, especially at UIUC with all the diversity and international students, and different types of food,” he said.

Cook said he would encourage other students to get involved in undergraduate research or an internship, but after they have taken certain formative chemistry classes.

“I think the time I started research was the right time,” he said.