Warhawk earns national chemistry accolade

June 02, 2020

Written by Kristine Zaballos | Images by Jeffrey Pohorski

Robert Rider, a chemistry major at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, will participate in a prestigious national educational outreach and workforce development program in chemistry at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, this summer.

Rider was selected as one of the 24 of 150 applicants nationwide for Nuclear and Radiochemistry Summer Schools (NCSS), an intensive six-week program for undergraduates. Funding is provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the summer program is administered through the American Chemical Society’s Division of Nuclear Chemistry and Technology.

Rider, who is minoring in biology, is the second UW-Whitewater student to have won this rare distinction, the previous recipient being Katherine Ceschi in 2018. Both were mentored by Professor of Chemistry Hephzibah Kumpaty.

Kumpaty Hephzibah, left, with Robert Rider in the lab in 2019.

“The Brookhaven National Laboratory summer school program in nuclear chemistry is reserved for students of outstanding academic talent and active participation in undergraduate research,” said Kumpaty, who has been teaching at UW-Whitewater for 24 years.

“Robert will be an excellent chemist. He’s a good, focused student who’s an independent thinker, a self-starter and a very organized individual. This program is an excellent opportunity for him.”

Rider, from Annapolis, Maryland, has earned numerous academic accolades, including scholarships, at UW-Whitewater, where he is also a student-athlete and captain of the men’s tennis team. In fact, the sport led him to become a Warhawk, after one of his high school coaches told him about the university’s tennis program and its coach, Frank Barnes. One of Rider’s sisters was already in Wisconsin, studying at UW-Madison, so he reached out to Coach Barnes to inquire.

“An assistant responded right away,” Rider said, “And in three or four days I was out visiting campus. I’d already visited other schools, and the people at UW-Whitewater seemed friendly and interested in me. I’d wanted to have smaller classes, to be closer to professors, and UW-Whitewater had my major. I met some professors who advocated for getting involved with chemistry or biology research as soon as possible. And I knew I wouldn’t be homesick with my sister nearby.”

His experience on campus was just as he hoped.

“The faculty really do care,” he said “Every single professor has been so caring and understanding that each student has their own needs. When I’ve had to miss a class because of tennis, they say ‘Listen just get the work to me.’ It’s the benefit of going to a smaller school.”

Rider, who will earn professional ACS-approved chemistry degree, knew he wanted to study chemistry before he came to college. “100%,” he said, although initially he planned to major in biochemistry on a path to medical school.

The summer after his freshman year he took Organic Chemistry 1 because he’d been told it was a difficult class and he wanted to be able to focus on it. That was the first course he took with Kumpaty.

“I liked the way she lectured and was so well-versed in the subject matter. She took a course that many people fear and made it comprehensible and intriguing. And there was never a time I couldn’t ask for help,” he said.

Rider began his research in Kumpaty’s laboratory, where the focus is on basic and applied organic chemistry with an emphasis on medicinally active molecules, drug design and delivery, the fall of 2018. 

Rider

“The synthesis of my research is producing nitrogen-containing heterocyclic products through the reductive amination reaction. It is a difficult and lengthy process — it can take more than week to complete one complete multistep reaction. Nitrogen-containing heterocyclic compounds are frequently found in drugs since they are a part of key biological molecules. This topic of organic chemistry is important in advancing medicinal chemistry, and I hope to contribute during my time at UW-Whitewater.”  

“Robert knows that research demands dedication. He’s not afraid of pursuing difficult projects and is willing to go the extra mile to put in the time and effort as the research demands,” said Kumpaty. “This experience has also provided Robert with additional synthesis and spectroscopy experience, a much-needed skill for success in graduate school or in the industry.”

The upcoming NCSS program will give Rider an opportunity to learn about an aspect of his major he might not otherwise be exposed to as an undergraduate.

“I’m looking forward to learning about nuclear chemistry and about the research being done at the national lab from the researchers themselves,” said Rider.

The program starts on June 14, 2020, and lasts for six weeks. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s experience will be virtual. A typical day will be three hours of lectures in the morning, a two-hour lunch break that may include meeting with other students, a mentor, or group activities, and two to three hours of lab lecture in the afternoon or guest lectures with previous students, industry scientists and others.

Rider thinks the virtual format, while disappointing in some respects, will offer some opportunities.

“The guest speakers will probably have an even bigger impact. I am sure if I have questions, they’ll be able to stay on after their lecture to answer them. For example, how should I prepare for grad school? How do I ask professors at prospective colleges about doing research with them? Do they know professors who are experts in organic chemistry they can recommend?”

“I’m also interested in getting to know the other students and learning about what they’ve been involved in at their respective campuses,” he said.

When he’s back on campus for his senior year, he plans to hit the ground running.

“In my research, I hope to alter some of the microwave procedures to determine the effect of the purity of nitrogen-containing heterocycles. I’d like to analyze some products with a biochemist to determine their biological properties since many drugs contain heterocyclic compounds,” he said. “I’m looking forward to finding some interesting data, writing a paper about it, and hopefully seeing it published,” he said.

Because he missed out on attending the National Conference on Undergraduate Research this spring, he looks forward to presenting a poster there next year, when he hopes to make more connections with chemistry professors and ask them about their research.

He also plans on continuing to reach out to other students, like other members of the tennis team, to suggest they try undergraduate research.

“I told one teammate about a genetics professor who was one of the kindest professors I ever had, and he reached out to her. All it took was him walking up to her office and asking to be a part of her research lab. As a result, he completed a year of research as a freshman, and now he’s set for the next three years.”

Rider’s experience over the past two years has solidified his determination to go to graduate school. “I want to earn a Ph.D., become an expert and hopefully make an impact,” said Rider.  “I’d like to get some solid research experience in an industry to begin with, and then come back to higher education and pass on what I have learned and be a mentor to others.”

Another goal as a Warhawk? 

“To graduate with honors from the Honors Program,” he said. “And we have such a good tennis team. It’s almost in the top 40 now, but I really want to get back to NCAA Division III-tournament and see us become a top-25 team.”