A Chemical Change


Kate came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign undecided to better explore the world of STEM before choosing a major. Now, she’s a junior in chemical engineering, navigating college life amid a pandemic. We sat down with Kate to discuss her passion for her major, what in-person classes have been like during COVID-19, and her hopes for senior year and beyond.

Why did you choose UIUC?

“I never wanted to go to school in Illinois. I wanted to go somewhere far away to get this really cool adventure, great experience, and everything. But I ended up just coming here. It wasn’t even after I visited. I was just like, ‘I guess I’ll go to Illinois. It’s close, and they seem like they have good programs outcome-wise.’

“Coming here confirmed my decision. It was a great choice because I originally came in undecided for school. Illinois has so many well-known programs that I felt comfortable transferring into whichever field I wanted to. And I knew I wanted to be in a STEM field.”

How did you discover your passion for chemical engineering?

“I’ve always loved STEM; I was kind of a nerd. I love chemistry and math and physics and all of those subjects. I just like learning about how things are made and everything. The classes here, like general chemistry, a lot of people say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so hard.’ But it’s interesting. So I wanted to do better in those classes. …

“The friends I met, they influenced me looking into the field. And the classes I took for chemical engineering here, I really loved my professor. He was super engaging and would apply things to the real world when we were in class. I was like, ‘Okay, I could see myself taking what I’m learning and applying it to something useful.’”

To that end, what do you hope to do after graduation?

“That’s still up in the air. … Chemical engineering industries are kind of broken up, very broadly defined. I’ve learned about oil in my classes, and energy is cool too, but I really like the medical side—helping others, doing consumer products and everything. I’m hoping to do something with pharmaceuticals and making new drugs, something medicine-wise. Or maybe something completely different.”

Kate poses with an Illini Service Dog surrounded by pumpkins at Curtis Orchard
Kate is involved in a number of activities on campus, including Illini Service Dogs. This student-run, non-profit organization trains service dogs for those in need. Here, Kate and one of the dogs-in-training take a fall trip to nearby Curtis Orchard.

What else have you been involved with during your time at UIUC?

“Besides being a tour guide, I’m in Chemistry R.E.A.C.T., which is Reaching and Educating America’s Chemists of Tomorrow. I did that for honors credit, because I’m also an honors student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I’m also in Illini Service Dogs.

“I was a volunteer at Carle Hospital, but because of COVID, I decided not to do that this semester. I used to volunteer on the oncology force, because I was also considering pre-medical fields, but not anymore. So then I just did it for fun.”

Speaking of COVID-19, have you been able to take any classes in person this semester?

“I take Chemistry 420. It’s like instruments and chemistry, and that’s a lecture. It meets twice a week, I think, and then I have my in-person lab for it, Chemistry 315. … They kind of made that a hybrid; they did some online labs that are recorded, but every other week I’ll be in the lab, which is nice. And then the other in-person class I have is STAT 400—statistics and probability. It’s a Monday/Wednesday/Friday lecture.

Kate at home with her laptop for an online class
Kate smiles for the camera minutes before an online class this fall. “One’s synchronous and one’s asynchronous,” she says. “A synchronous lecture means that the professor will be live lecturing on certain days of the week. Mine are Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And then my asynchronous lectures are Tuesday, Thursday. The professor uploads a video that’s pre-recorded and then also posts lecture notes as well.”

How do those classes differ from pre-COVID times?

“All the seats are spread out. There’s tape over the seats so you’re not sitting right next to each other, and we’re wearing our masks. And in my in-person lectures, they also record it for the people online simultaneously, so they’ll have the Zoom on the screen, and then they’re also sharing the screen for the presentation. That’s kind of different. But other than that, it’s just a lot less people.

“Usually, you do partner labs, but now it’s by yourself, and you have to wear masks as well as your PPE, the goggles and the lab coat. Staying away from people in the lab is different as well, because when you’re using the same materials, you have to be spread out, and asking for help from students and teaching assistants is different.

Overall, even in my lectures, it’s nice to engage face-to-face with the professor and still be able to ask questions throughout the lecture without interrupting online and everything.”

What determines who attends the lectures in person and who doesn’t?

“I have pretty early registration because I’m an honors student, so I was able to sign up for those interesting classes. But I also signed up for the online section first; I know some people have to be in person. But once I saw the in-person wasn’t filled, I went back and was like, ‘Oh, I totally want to go in person.’ I know some people were like, ‘I want to be at home, lying in bed, watching my lectures,’ but I wanted to be on campus, take advantage of all the opportunities to be face to face.

“For our lab, everybody kind of had to be in person, so they made accommodations. I think there are 6 people in a lab, and usually there are like, 15. So they made a bunch of different sections and spread out the times. Usually, they’d have one section a day, but now they have multiple sections with only 6 students. They made that pretty accommodating.”

Kate and friends spending time socially distanced on the quad.
Kate is proud of how UIUC and its students have been handling the pandemic: “When I first came back to campus, I was pleasantly surprised with how many people were wearing masks and staying far away from each other.” Here, she and her friends spend time together social-distance-style on the Quad.

You also have to be tested in order to attend your classes. What’s the COVID-19 testing program like at UIUC?

“Most undergraduate students test twice a week, and you have specific days to go and test. All you have to do is bring your I-Card with you, and no eating or drinking an hour before you get your test. It’s a saliva test. … Results have been coming within 24 hours. I’ll go and get tested in the morning at 10 a.m., and then my results will come in at like 10 or 11 p.m., which is really nice.

“Everything goes into the Safer Illinois app. It’ll tell you when you have building access, if you need to go get tested, or different testing locations to see when which ones are open. There are so many locations open all the time; I’ve never had a problem like waiting in line. I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than like, five minutes to go and get my test. And even if I felt sick and I’m supposed to test two days a week, I can go and still get tested on a day I’m not scheduled to.”

What does it mean to be an Illini during such times?

“I think it means being selfless, especially in COVID times. When they send out mass emails that say you need to social distance and wear a mask and everything, I think as an Illini, it’s our responsibility to protect the community and do our part to help everyone stay safe on campus and still be able to have these engagements.

“It’s also about holding true to your values of working hard and still putting in that honest effort to get your work done. I know a lot of professors have been very accommodating and lenient, whether it’s with tests or grading or other aspects, and I think you have to maintain your integrity and put in your work, too. Read the textbook and learn the material and put in an honest effort.”

Kate and friends on a Habitat 4 Humanity trip
“The people I’ve met here, everyone is always so friendly and polite,” says Kate of her UIUC experience. “It has been super nice to meet people from all over the world, as well as people who live five minutes away from home.”

And how have you grown during your time at UIUC?

“I think I’ve grown a lot personally in the sense that I feel a lot more comfortable introducing myself to other people and putting myself out there, whether it’s with professors or with friends. When I was a freshman, I was super anxious to meet people, and when I would go sit in class, I wouldn’t talk to the person next to me, because I was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna think I’m so weird!’

“I thought everyone would be judging me, but I’ve learned that nobody cares—not in a bad way, but in a good way. People care about me, but nobody cares about stupid things like what you’re wearing to class or anything. You can do your own thing. Nobody cares if you get the question wrong. If you participate, you’re not going to look stupid.”

You’re currently a junior. What do you hope your senior year looks like?

“I obviously would really love for classes to be in person so I could still engage with my friends here, since I don’t know if I’ll see them outside of college. It would be very nice to have those in-person classes. But if things get worse, safety is the priority, so I totally understand that.

“If we’re set up like now, with the hybrid classes and still being able to get tested, I’m okay with that. I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to engage so much in person and still be on campus and get the reassuring tests knowing that I’m still healthy.”