PhD Candidate in Chemistry
Andrea d'Aquino is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Her research focuses on the design and synthesis of stimuli-responsive architectures for application in molecular sensing and catalysis. Andrea is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF-GRFP), a Ryan Fellowship, a P.E.O. Scholars Award, and the Gates Millennium Scholarship. Andrea also co-teaches a class in the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP).
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
Nature is the inspiration for much of my work, which is focused on designing and building molecules that can assemble into architectures that resemble Nature’s most powerful machines: proteins. The molecules I make closely resemble proteins in that they are able to change their structure and function in response to chemical cues or environmental changes. The responsive behavior of proteins is essential to life and is what makes them so powerful. The ability to make molecules that mimic proteins opens doors to new technologies and chemistries.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I never thought I would have the opportunity to get involved with a program like NPEP, and I really had no idea that programs like it even existed. NPEP has brought me so much joy during my PhD. I have had the opportunity to work with graduate students from almost every department across the University and have learned a tremendous amount from students that I don’t think I ever would have otherwise met. I am constantly inspired by the dedication, passion and relentless drive all of the members of NPEP demonstrate. I am particularly awed by the passion, tenacity, and motivation I see from our students at Stateville Correctional Center. They are a constant source of inspiration. I always look forward to working with our NPEP students and volunteers each week!
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
It wasn’t until late into my college education that I decided to take general chemistry. I was terrified of chemistry and of most science courses, but when I sat down for my first general chemistry class, my mind was opened to a new way of solving problems and a new way of understanding the world. That first quarter of chemistry changed the way I saw the world and motivated me to better understand the world through science.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
I have learned that you should never be afraid to ask questions and you should never be afraid to fail.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
The uncertainty of scientific research is both the most challenging and rewarding part of my work. It can be frustrating and stressful to not know if you are chasing a dead end, or if the reaction you spent so many hours setting up will ever produce a meaningful result. However, the days when you get the result you were hoping for, and you find your direction, are the days that make it all worth it.
When I came to visit Northwestern five years ago, the energy I felt on the campus was the major selling point for me. I loved the enthusiasm everyone had about their science and research and I was very impressed by the broad range of opportunities and resources Northwestern made available to students. I felt like I would be supported here and that I could grow as a scientist and as a person.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I enjoy being outside and spending time with my friends and my twin sister. Unless it’s the middle of winter and then I enjoy painting, photography, reading, writing and picking up new hobbies.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by great teachers. I believe that education is empowering, and those who teach are empowering others. Great teachers see potential in you when you can’t see it in yourself, and they help you find your direction and achieve your dreams. I strive to be a great teacher and am fortunate to have many role models who inspire me every day. I am also truly inspired by the NPEP students I work with at Stateville Correctional Center each week. They are incredibly creative, tenacious and they have an unwavering determination to learn. It takes great courage and perseverance to overcome the challenges they face each day.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am most proud of the dissertation I submitted, and I am proud to have successfully defended my thesis! I entered graduate school with the goal of becoming a better scientist and, despite unexpected challenges and setbacks, I never gave up on that goal. I have grown a tremendous amount in the past five years. I never could have imagined that I would be earning a graduate education and I feel very proud to say that I am now a PhD.
Published: January 27, 2020
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