“Paying Forward the Values I learned at Michigan”

By: Keary Engle (BA 2007 Chemistry and Economics)

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10 years ago, working at my cramped and cluttered desk, which sat below a lofted bed in my South Quad dorm room, I sent an email that changed my life.

I arrived on campus in Ann Arbor two months earlier to start my freshman year, and having settled into the rhythm of the semester, I was eager to get involved in some sort of research project. I gravitated towards opportunities in the Chemistry Department since I was enjoying CHEM 210/211 and since I had previously participated in a range of chemistry-related events for the West Ottawa High School Science Olympiad team.

To narrow down the long list of chemistry faculty members, I attempted to read through research descriptions online. I quickly found, however, that comprehending even these short synopses was a major challenge. Somewhat dismayed, I forced myself to press forward until I ultimately stumbled upon a description that mentioned, “polymer heteronuclei for crystal polymorph selection.” I was delighted to recognize at least one word in that description, ‘polymer.’ Polymer science was a subject that was near and dear to my heart, as one of my events in Science Olympiad had been Polymer Detectives. I read through the description a few more times, and ultimately penciled “Adam Matzger” onto the top of my list of professors to contact. I cobbled together a few sentences introducing myself and explaining why I was interested in Adam’s research and sent it away to him, not really expecting much.

To my tremendous surprise, Adam replied almost immediately, inviting me to visit his lab and sit in on a group meeting. By the end of the week, I was an official member of the Matzger group, working with a graduate student named Kate Plass. I was elated, but nervous. I had never set foot in a chemistry research lab, and everyone in my group was performing experiments that literally no one in the world had ever done before.

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I was hoping to cut my teeth by washing glassware for a few hours per week and learning through osmosis, but Kate and Adam had other plans. Within a few days of starting, I learned how to manipulate atomically flat highly-ordered pyrolytic graphite sheets, which costs upwards of $500 a piece, and to operate a scanning tunneling microscope, an instrument that was worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Looking back, what amazes me most about my early experiences in the Matzger lab is not necessarily the limitless resources that I instantly had access to. It’s the fact that Adam and Kate were willing to take me on and nurture my budding sense of scientific curiosity, despite having seemingly nothing to gain from doing so. Their trust, faith, and confidence were truly remarkable. Here I was, a scrawny 17-year old from a small town in Western Michigan, and world-class researchers were taking it upon themselves to teach me to understand and contribute to their projects—never mind that I knew nothing about chemistry research and that my previous two jobs were painting houses and refereeing U10 indoor soccer games.

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Adam and Kate’s mentorship shaped my career in ways that I could have never anticipated at the time. I ended up working in the Matzger group for all four years that I was an undergrad in LSA, and I even managed to publish two research articles with Adam and Kate describing new aspects of two-dimensional molecular self-assembly. Motivated by this experience, I sought other research opportunities and had the good fortune to find positions in labs all around the world: University of Stuttgart, Max-Planck-Institute for Coal Research, Scripps Research Institute, University of Tokyo, and University of Oxford. This past summer, I completed graduate school, and I recently moved to Caltech, where I’m working as a postdoc with Robert Grubbs, a 2005 Nobel Laureate, who fittingly enough, also mentored Adam as a postdoc 15 years ago.

The profound impact that Adam and Kate had on me has inspired me to pay forward these same values to the next generation through mentorship. I’ve served as a research mentor for high school students, undergrads, and junior grad students, and in all cases, the experience has been immensely fulfilling. Based on my own experience at Michigan, I know that my responsibility as a mentor is not merely to get the next generation excited about science; it’s also to instill in them the confidence that they can become great scientists irrespective of their background or previous knowledge. I try to give younger students a chance to pursue their passion, and I support them unconditionally along their journey. In this way, I’d like to think that I pass on a small piece of LSA for the next generation to share.

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