Two graduate students recognized for outstanding mentorship

Robert Boyd, left, and Amanda East

Two graduate students in the Department of Chemistry have been recognized for their outstanding mentorship of multiple undergraduates in their respective chemistry research groups.

Amanda East, a fifth-year graduate student in the Chan lab, has been awarded the second annual Dr. Sandra Murawski Award for Mentoring Excellence, and Robert Boyd, a fourth-year graduate student in the Silverman lab, has been awarded the fourth annual Gary Schuster Mentoring Scholarship.

The Murawski award in the amount of $1,000 was established by alum Dr. Sandra Murawski (PhD, ’86, Rinehart) who has built a 40-year career in chemistry at P&G and wanted to establish this award to recognize and support excellence in graduate student mentoring.

The Schuster scholarship, also in the amount of $1,000, was established by Dr. De-Kai Loo (PhD, ’87, Beak) and Dr. Jianjian Zhang (PhD, ’89, Schuster) in 2018 in honor of Gary Schuster, professor of chemistry at Illinois from 1975 to 1994. The scholarship recognizes graduate students who demonstrate outstanding mentorship of undergraduate students.

Amanda East — The Murawski Award

In his nomination, Professor Jeff Chan said East has demonstrated consistent excellence as a mentor to three undergraduates over the course of three and a half years. He said each of the mentees has experienced “immense success.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree, Scout Cormier was hired at Derick Dermatology and has thrived at the company, Chan said. And Chang Jiang, a visiting scholar from China working in the Chan lab, published two papers, one in JACS and another in Organic Letters.

“It is noteworthy that prior to working with Amanda, Chang had limited organic synthetic experience and therefore, much of her in-lab skills can be attributed to Amanda,” Chan said.

Chang is now a first-year graduate student in the Organic Area here at UIUC, and Chan said she chose Illinois to pursue a PhD in chemistry partly because she deeply enjoyed the positive lab environment that Amanda helped to foster.

Also, in the past year, Amanda has been mentoring Qasim Sikander, who is also an author on the JACS publication and will likely be an author on two more upcoming publications.

Qasim said Amanda's work ethic, dedication to inclusion, and positive energy motivated him to contribute meaningful work during his time in the lab.

East said she loves being able to facilitate learning opportunities for younger students.

"My previous research experiences were instrumental in my career development, and I'm happy to be able to provide such opportunities for others," East said. "I also am happy to see where my mentees end up after graduation. My current undergrad (Sikander) is med school bound and my previous undergrad (Chang) joined the incoming 2022 graduate class and is now in my lab." 

Robert Boyd — Gary Schuster Mentoring Scholarship

In his nomination of Boyd, Professor Scott Silverman said has successfully mentored three undergraduate students who are each co-authors of nearly completed manuscripts — one as first author — and all three are headed to chemistry graduate school.

“Robert Boyd has been extraordinarily successful at undergraduate research mentorship, helping all three of his undergraduate mentees to become proficient at research and strengthening their paths to chemistry graduate school,” Silverman said.

Boyd said he is honored to be recognized for mentoring other students.

"Mentorship is an integral part of one’s professional development, and I’ve had several great mentors over the years that helped me on my path to graduate school. It’s nice to have the opportunity to return the favor by mentoring other students so they, too, can succeed in their future academic and career endeavors," Boyd said.  

Boyd began mentoring chemistry undergraduate Morgan Kennebeck in her freshman year, teaching her all aspects of the Silverman lab's experimental work, and her early contributions in the group led to her being second author – with Robert at first author – on a manuscript about DNAzymes that catalyze nucleobase N-alkylation. That manuscript will soon be submitted for publication.

With Boyd’s continued mentorship, Morgan is also the first author of a separate forthcoming manuscript on nucleobase N-acylation DNAzymes with Boyd as a coauthor. Kennebeck graduated in May 2023 with her bachelor’s in chemistry and will attend graduate school at the University of California Berkeley.

Boyd has also successfully mentored two more undergraduates, sophomore Illinois chemistry major Maria Massa and Aurora Miranda, a visiting Snyder Scholar who spent the summer doing research at UIUC before her senior year at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

Massa assisted with the N-acylation DNAzymes research. Robert worked directly with Massa to design and execute key experiments for the project, and now she will be the third author on the upcoming manuscript and is also planning to attend chemistry graduate school. And Miranda contributed to the N-alkylation DNAzymes project. Boyd also fully trained Miranda on all experiments, and she will be an author on the resulting manuscript and is planning to attend chemistry graduate school at Yale University this fall.

Boyd said he enjoys witnessing the success of the students that he has mentored.

"While their success is primarily their own, I feel like their success is also mine in a small but meaningful way," he said. 

Regardless of his career path, Boyd said he anticipates situations that require teaching and training others.

"Mentoring others is a great way to practice teaching while developing valuable leadership skills. Mentorship also gives me a sense of fulfillment in knowing that I helped positively impact someone else’s career," he said.