Getting to know: Graduate student Katherine Hatzis


To some, Urbana-Champaign is a micro-urban oasis in a vast expanse of farmland, but to Katherine Hatzis, the surrounding corn and soybean fields and the cows are a familiar sight.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio,” said Katie, a fifth-year PhD student in the Murphy group who is involved in researching fundamental surface science of gold nanomaterials, including how ligands bind and arrange on nanoparticles.

Alyssa DeLucia, a current PhD candidate in the Olshansky group, had encouraged Hatzis several years ago to apply to the chemistry graduate program at Illinois. Hatzis met DeLucia at an undergraduate research experience at Georgia Tech and recalls DeLucia telling her about the cows and how she would love it here.

“I got accepted, and I already had a basis here in terms of friends. And I met professors whose research I liked and decided to take that leap,” she said.

But during her first year the pandemic lockdown pushed everyone to remote work in early 2020, so Hatzis returned to northeast rural Ohio and spent time working on the farm, driving a tractor, while taking classes online. She enjoys working on the family farm.

“I definitely think it’s given me the skills to push through some of those really hard days,” she said.

Hatzis was one of only six students, and the only girl, in her high school advanced placement chemistry class in small-town Farmdale. She first thought about becoming a chemist when a local community college program introduced her to women in science careers, including Valerie Cubon-Bell, a professor of chemistry-biochemistry at Kent State University’s Trumbull regional campus.

Hatzis went on to college at Kent State University’s main campus and narrowed her focus to chemistry when her general chemistry professor asked if she would like to work in his lab.

Katie Greskovich drives a tractor pulling a planter in a field in northwestern ohio.
Katie Hatzis driving a tractor in a field on the family farm in Ohio.

“He saw something in me… And I was just incredibly interested in (chemistry),” said Hatzis, who first really connected with the subject while learning the chemistry of water, why it is the way it is.

“I felt like it made the world make more sense. I liked the way I was now able to see the world,” she said.

Hatzis majored in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry at Kent State and got involved in science outreach as an undergraduate and student affiliate of the American Chemical Society.

“The biggest thing I did was raise $2,000 for local underfunded schools to buy science equipment for their classrooms,” said Hatzis, who has continued her involvement in science outreach activities as a graduate student at Illinois.

Hatzis has helped plan the annual Gender Equity in Chemical Sciences retreat, has been a board member of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, volunteered with Encouraging Tomorrow’s Chemists and most recently the Women Chemist Committee’s “Bonding with Chemistry” Day Camp, which returned to an on campus, in-person event this year for the first time since the pandemic under Hatzis’s leadership.

In the past, the camp brought up to 45 local youth to campus over two separate weekends for chemistry demonstrations and activities. But a lot changed since the pandemic, creating some challenges for reviving the in-person format.

Hatzis said the planning committee, which she chaired, was persistent and their hard work paid off with more than 30 volunteers putting on a one-day on campus event in June that attracted 60 youth participants, who experienced hands-on activities, like extracting chlorophyll from spinach, using chemistry in a crime scene investigation, and making liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Twenty-five percent were youth who are underrepresented in the chemical sciences. It was the camp’s most diverse group ever.

“So, we were really excited about that. It took a lot of work, but it was really important to me,” Hatzis said.

She also got involved in English as a Second Language classes as an undergraduate at Kent State and has continued that work at Illinois with a part-time ESL teaching job at the Wesley Foundation, which Hatzis said offers her a great mental break from graduate work.

“Even if you had a bad day in the lab, you can go there and know you are effecting positive change in people’s lives,” she said. “It’s nice to be able meet people’s needs.”

Now, Hatzis is looking ahead to completing her PhD. In October, she married her now-husband Michael, a fellow Kent State alum she met in her general chemistry class. She is not yet sure what career path she will pursue but loves teaching and educational outreach.

“What’s nice about Illinois, they train and prepare you for everything, the academic or industrial route,” she said.

The highlight of her time at Illinois so far has been the other people she has met, especially in her research group.

“It’s really hard work, and it can be a slog sometimes. You always have someone to talk to and relate with. We do our best to lift each other up,” said Hatzis, who had to take a medical leave of absence during her graduate studies.

She said she is very proud of what she has overcome and encourages other graduate students not to lose hope when they face challenges.

“I just want students to realize there is hope and a way forward. Just because things aren’t working now, doesn’t mean they never will,” she said.