Spotlight: Class of 2023 Chemistry at Illinois graduates


Class of 2023 Graduate Spotlights



Portrait of Morgan Kennebeck in cap and gown in front of Noyes entrance
Morgan Kennebeck
BS, chemistry (Specialized Curriculum)

Awards: Reynold C. Fuson Award for excellence in undergraduate research

Future: Pursuing a PhD in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Activities: R.E.A.C.T., American Chemical Society chapter, Illini Strings, Chem 150 Peer Mentor/Teaching Assistant.

Undergrad highlight: A highlight of my career at UIUC has been being a part of the student chapter of the American Chemical Society. Being able to have a close group of people also interested in chemistry has helped me to advance my career and make a lot of friends!

You are an Illinois alum! It feels crazy that I am already graduating. I feel like I was just starting out as a freshman, time really flew by!

Why Illinois? I would recommend UIUC to a prospective student because of all the opportunities that UIUC provides. There are so many resources for getting started with undergraduate research, getting internships, getting help with classes, etc. Regardless of your choice of major, UIUC will be able to provide you with everything you need to get you to wherever you want to go.

Undergraduate research: Kennebeck was involved in undergraduate research all four years at Illinois, starting in second semester of her freshman year in the Silverman group working with DNAzymes.

“One cool part of research was how involved undergraduates get to be in my lab. When I was first starting out in research, I was trained by a more senior undergraduate and assisted with her project. Once she graduated, I was able to further her project and I was able to mentor new undergraduates that joined the lab. It was super cool being able to take what I learned and help other people get started with research as well,” she said.


Portrait of Megan Murphy in cap and gown in front of Noyes entrance
Megan Murphy
BS, Chemistry (Specialized Curriculum)

Awards: Carl S. Marvel Award for excellence in undergraduate research

Future: Pursuing PhD in polymeric materials chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Activities: President, American Chemical Society UIUC Student Chapter

Undergrad highlight: Serving as president of the ACS UIUC Student Chapter for two years. This opportunity allowed me to lead a tight-knit community of young chemists while facilitating members’ career development and fostering excitement for chemistry through community outreach.

You are an Illinois alum! I feel extremely proud of what I have accomplished at UIUC and well-prepared for the next phase of my life in graduate school.

Why Illinois? The Department of Chemistry fosters an inclusive and supportive environment and strives for the academic, professional, and personal success of its students. There are plentiful opportunities for participating in undergraduate research, gaining leadership experience, and building meaningful relationships with other students.

Undergraduate research (Moore group)Participating in undergraduate research was the best decision of my four years at UIUC. Because of undergraduate research, I learned critical thinking and laboratory skills that prepared me for courses, an internship, and graduate school; shared research at national and regional research conferences; and gained lifelong mentors.


Portrait of Qasim Sikander in cap and gown outside RAL building
Qasim Sikander
BS, chemistry (highest distinction)

Activities: Chess club, oSTEM (out in STEM), Alternative Protein research committee

Awards: Algernon DeWaters Gorman Memorial Prize in Chemistry for scholarly work in chemistry; and Illinois Promise Scholar with distinction

Future: Work in the Chemistry Learning Center on the UIUC campus in the 2023-24 academic year as a Chemistry Learning Center Specialist. I'll ensure the general chemistry students get the help they need, and I hope to develop organic chemistry teaching materials as well. During this gap year, I'll be applying to medical school.

Undergrad highlight: I'm really happy about all the friends and connections I've made at UIUC, especially as a Teaching Assistant. I've made close friends with many other TAs, and the professors I worked with have helped me make the best of my time here. I remember how nervous I was going into my first section, but I always enjoyed teaching since then. It was always a nice break from tough classes!

You are an Illinois alum! It feels amazing, and I'm so glad I'll be able to share the moment with my loved ones! I put in a lot of work to get this far, and I'm excited to see what more is in store for me (hopefully med school).

Why Illinois? UIUC has a place for all of us. I found several groups where I felt at home, and I made friends with people from diverse backgrounds and interests. There are countless labs on campus for research-oriented folks, and professors are often willing to help undergraduates take on independent projects. Also, the campus is really pretty! 

Undergraduate Research (Chan lab; mentor was Amanda East): My research involved a lot of chemical synthesis, and it was difficult for me to come to terms with how much failure might be required before a set of reactions works. However, my mentor really helped me improve my skills. My self-confidence and critical thinking really benefitted from being in the lab. As weird as it might sound, the lab also became a safe space for me where I would frequently retreat to get some work done or take a quick break.


Portrait of Ian Garvey in graduation regalia standing against an orange Block I background
Ian J. Garvey
BS, chemistry (Specialized Curriculum)

Activities: Daily Illini newspaper as a sophomore, IFV as a freshman

Awards: John C. Bailar Award for excellence in undergraduate research

Research: In the Mirica lab, I worked primarily on the synthesis and characterization of a new bidentate pyridinophane ligand, followed by a slew of para substituted derivatives. These ligands were then used to make novel low-valent Nickel complexes, which could have promising reactivity and applications in catalysis. Garvey presented his research at the 2022 Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Poster Session on the UIUC campus.

“This experience was a great outlet for me to become more confident in my knowledge and skills in Chemistry, as I had to be able to explain all aspects of my project during the presentation. I also find talking about research with others to be extremely satisfying, as it is exciting to interact with people who are engaged/interested in your research,” he said.

Important mentors: I started my undergraduate research as a sophomore in Alison Fout’s lab during the Fall of 2020. At that point in time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in chemistry, and I was also struggling with feeling like I didn’t belong. Despite the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty, Alison found a graduate student within her lab that was willing to train me: Kelly Gullett. Working in the Fout lab not only showed me my true passion within chemistry (synthetic inorganic research) but helped strengthen my knowledge and skills within the field. It also helped bolster my communication skills, as working with other people in such a technically demanding job can be challenging. I truly want to thank Alison and Kelly for their indescribable compassion, patience, and knowledge, which played a critical role in making me the aspiring research chemist I am today.

Future: Pursuing PhD in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Shannon Stahl’s lab, where Garvey will start research this summer.

Undergrad highlight: The people I’ve met working in both the Fout lab and Liviu Mirica lab. The graduate students and faculty members at this institution are absolutely at the top of their field, and they have no limit on knowledge and skills to teach. Moreover, I have not met someone at UIUC who hasn’t been helpful and genuinely enjoyable to interact with.

Why Illinois? The inclusive, welcoming research environment the school has. UIUC offers a wide variety of research opportunities and the faculty members running said research are motivated and well-known in their field! I firmly believe that anyone who goes to UIUC and wants to do some flavor of research, absolutely can!



PhD graduates


Portrait of Amanda East in graduation regalia standing in front of an orange background with blue Block I
Amanda East
PhD, Chan lab

Research: Synthesis of small molecule diagnostic tools for early detection of cancer

Awards:  Dr. Sandra Murawski Award for Mentoring Excellence

“I love being able facilitate learning opportunities for younger folks. My previous research experiences were instrumental in my career development, and I'm happy to be able to provide such opportunities for others. I also am happy to see where my mentees end up after graduation. My current undergrad is med school bound and previous undergrad joined the incoming 2022 graduate class and is now in my lab!”

Activities: Women Chemists Committee, Younger Chemists Committee, East Central Illinois chapter of the American Chemical Society

Future: Senior Research Specialist at Dow Chemical 

You are an Illinois PhD alum! It's been a long but also short journey. I am grateful for all that I've learned, and also all of the friends I've made along the way. 

Secret to success: Support from colleagues and friends during tough degree requirements and celebrating the good times 

Advice to graduate students? Find a good group of people within your lab and the department. And for industry-bound folks, do the on campus recruiting and work with the Career Office. They are amazing.

Why Chemistry at Illinois? The people I met when I was here and the research

PhD highlight? All the friends that I've made, meeting my partner, and adopting my cat, Penny.


Portrait of Sophie McClain in graduation regalia standing in front of an orange background with blue Block I
Sophie McClain
PhD, The Murphy Group

Awards: American Chemical Society Presidential P3 Medal for Graduate Research Excellence

Activities: Student Wellness Coalition and the Department of Chemistry’s Joint Safety Team.

Research: Synthesizing gold nanoparticles with synaptic vesicle mimicking surface chemistries and using them as a platform to improve our understanding of a certain brain protein called alpha-synuclein which is implicated in the development of Parkinson's disease.

“Alpha-synuclein is believed to interact with synaptic vesicles as part of its normal function, so the goal of my research is to systematically study how changes in synaptic vesicle properties such as chemical composition, surface curvature, and mechanical properties could influence alpha-synuclein's progression between normal and pathogenic state,” McClain said.

Future: She defends this summer and after that McClain will pursue a career in the field of technology transfer.

“I want to play a role in protecting intellectual property associated with new inventions coming out of research institutions and moving these innovations along the path to commercialization,” McClain said. “The journey to get to this point has been full of growth and discovery and I am looking forward to the accomplishment of that final milestone!”

Secret to success: Realizing that graduate school is meant to be a learning experience and new graduate students are not expected to come in knowing all the answers helped McClain to be successful in the graduate program.

“In other words, recognizing that asking questions and seeking out help are not signs of weakness, but in fact are the best way to gain knowledge and develop the skills necessary to become a successful researcher and scientist,” she said.

Advice to 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 are overwhelming and it’s 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.

Why Chemistry at Illinois?There were a handful of factors that came together to make Illinois the right place for me to pursue my PhD.  I was really excited about the research taking place across the department, there were amazing state-of-the-art core facilities and instrumentation available for student use, and the community felt very welcoming and supportive when I came for my visit weekend. The geographic location was also advantageous, allowing me to remain relatively close to family.”

PhD highlight: “The best part of my experience has been the professional connections and lifelong friendships I have made during my time here. My lab mates and colleagues have been an invaluable source of support, encouragement, and guidance during my grad school career. I couldn't have done it without all of them!”


Head shot of Emily Mumford on a gray background
Emily Mumford
PhD, Denmark Group

Activities: Women Chemists Committee and DCGSAC events

Research: My research used organoselenium catalysts for functionalizing alkenes and selectively installing new nitrogen and oxygen substituents.  I was able to do a mix of method development and mechanistic research.

Future: I look forward to starting my career as a process chemist at Bristol Myers Squibb this summer!

You are an Illinois PhD alum! It feels like the hard work over the past several years has really paid off.

Secret to success: Having friends inside and outside the lab and finding good mentors.

Advice for graduate students? Talk to people. Most graduate students and faculty want to help you!

Why Chemistry at Illinois? The high caliber of research across the chemistry department, and the friendly graduate students.

PhD highlights: 1) The people 2) The research 3) Exploring the Champaign-Urbana area



Daniel Najera in blue and orange graduation regalia with his family members and PhD advisor
Daniel Najera (front row center) poses after the May 2023 chemistry Convocation ceremony with his family members and his PhD advisor Prof. Alison Fout (front row, third from right).
Daniel Najera
PhD, Fout Group

Research:  The synthesis of new iron catalysts bearing a “CCC” ligand

Future: I will be working for Dow Chemical in Lake Jackson, Texas

Activities: Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee (DCGSAC), Women Chemists Committee (WCC), Student Wellness Coalition (SWC), Illinois Consulting Group (ICG), and the Diversity Committee

You are an Illinois PhD alum! It’s almost unbelievable, the journey has been tough but rewarding. This degree reflects the generational sacrifice of an immigrant family to pursue a better quality of life. Now, I have the honor to be the first member of my family to graduate college and obtain a graduate degree.

Secret to success: A great support system both professional and personal. My advisor, lab mates, friends, my wife, and my family, were all key to this accomplishment.

Advice to graduate students? Progress happens at different rates for everyone. Some weeks are slow, sometimes a single result will need a year of follow-up, it all varies so be prepared.

Why Chemistry at Illinois? Great people, great research, great location. My recruitment visit as a prospective student convinced me that this was the right place for me. Having family roots in Chicago also helped.

PhD highlights? The throve of experiences available: participating in student organizations, planning events, advocating for progress, professional development, internships, and a nice welcoming town.


Head shot of Katie Stawiasz in an outdoor setting
Katie Stawiasz
PhD, Moore Group

Activities: DCGSAC, AMS Group (Autonomous Materials Systems Group through the Beckman Institute), ETC (Encouraging Tomorrow's Chemists), Women Chemists Committee

Research: My Original Research Proposal was "Block Copolymer-Derived Ceramics: A Tailored Approach for Ultra-High Temperature Materials." At that time, I was really interested in a career at a national lab and was inspired by some work being done on ultra-high temperature materials. I was able to find some interesting intersections between polymers and ceramics.

Future: I just started as a Senior Research Chemist at 3M!

You are an Illinois PhD alum! It feels awesome!!!

Secret to success: I won't lie: graduate school is hard and imposter syndrome can feel overwhelming. There is a ton of pressure to perform at a high level at all times; we often hold ourselves to a standard where we think we need to know everything. I really think that my success started to come when I started accepting that it was okay to not have all the answers. I began to ask more questions in group meetings, among colleagues, etc. In my opinion, real growth happens when you recognize your weaknesses not as failures, but as opportunities to learn more.

Advice to graduate students: Find a supportive group of friends both inside and outside of the chemistry department. It's great to have friends that know exactly what you're going through, but it's also nice to have friends in other fields (or even outside of the university). I joined the Second Wind Running club during my first year of grad school and it provided me with the structure I needed to maintain a good work/life balance. Plus, blowing off steam on a run can feel pretty good too!

Why Chemistry at Illinois? The breadth of research and the opportunities to collaborate. During my visit weekend, I saw a lot of Illinois Chemistry students who were friends with/working with students in other departments. I loved the idea of working in an interdisciplinary team and was able to do just that through the Beckman Institute.

PhD highlight? The other graduate students and post docs that I met are truly one of a kind. There exists a very diverse range of thoughts and experiences, both in life and in science. They all contributed to my evolution not just as a scientist, but also as a human being.