Jeromy Rech recognizes how influential teaching and mentorship can be in making major life decisions. He says advice from mentors has opened him up to new possibilities, including enriching experiences in graduate school.
Rech, a UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student in chemistry, has gone on to connect other graduate students to opportunities in a variety of fields of science through his role as president of the Materials Research Society at UNC-Chapel Hill. He also teaches students at Durham Technical Community College.
Research is a major focus: Rech is working, with other collaborators, on how to incorporate new materials for the creation of solar panels.
“We have demonstrated that the solar panels do not negatively impact plant growth and have the potential to create a completely off-the-grid greenhouse,” he said. “This is just one type of research project that I am working on.”
Tell us about your background and why you chose Carolina for graduate school.
When I graduated from high school, I had no intention of becoming a chemist. In fact, I planned to pursue a bachelor of science degree in theology, attend seminary to get ordained as a priest, and then serve as both a history teacher and priest at a Catholic institution. My motivation to pursue this path stemmed from a desire to help others, especially through teaching.
To achieve these goals, I opted to go to Lewis University, a small private school in rural Illinois, for undergrad. While planning the first-semester class schedule, I met with Jason Keleher, chair of the chemistry department, for help with choosing a science elective. Rather than just recommending a course, Keleher began to tell me about what research in the chemistry department was like, and I started to learn about how research in chemistry could match my specific goals. Upon this realization, I knew I needed to switch majors because I could see that chemistry had the ability to tackle real-world problems and help a much larger and global population.
This epiphany was a pivotal moment in my education. After working in Keleher’s research group for four years, I knew that I wanted to continue with this path and go to graduate school. When I think of UNC-Chapel Hill, I see a place that provides a world-class education and has leaders in the research realms of chemistry and the environment.
What should people know about your research?
I am currently a fourth-year graduate student in Wei You’s research lab, where I work on designing and synthesizing new materials that are used in solar panels. I work in a subset of solar energy that uses organic-based polymers to harvest solar energy. The solar panels that we make are cheaper than conventional solar panels and can have many cool properties such as being lightweight, flexible, stretchable and semi-transparent.
We have an ongoing collaboration with a team at NC State University where we design semi-transparent polymers that specifically absorb wavelengths of light that plants do not need for photosynthesis. These polymers are then used in solar panels affixed on the roof of a greenhouse, where light is harvested to provide the energy to power the heating, cooling and hydroponic needs of the greenhouse. We have demonstrated that the solar panels do not negatively impact plant growth and have the potential to create a completely off-the-grid greenhouse.
Another project that I am just starting on revolves around taking waste plastics and recycling them to create new polymers that are used in solar panels. How cool is it that we can take waste plastics, like a water bottle, and work on converting it to be used in a solar panel?
As president of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of the Materials Research Society, you have planned a workshop to encourage graduate students to apply for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Why is this important to you and what do you hope your outreach accomplishes?
I am very lucky to be in charge of the Materials Research Society and have such an active community that is always ready to support new ideas. The Materials Research Society runs all kinds of events, from outreach to elementary, middle and high school students to excite them about STEM, to talking with students at local primarily undergraduate institutions and historically black colleges and universities about what graduate school is and how to best prepare/set yourself up to succeed.
This October, the Materials Research Society hosted its sixth annual NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Peer Review Workshop. This event started as a way to help chemistry graduate students increase their odds of winning the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program fellowship, and has grown to encompass the entire University. This year, we will have participants from every single program that can apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Last year, 26% of participants were awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
This event is important because we have so many strong students at Carolina, and if provided the right tools, they can easily succeed. My goal is to help best facilitate access to these tools to increase the number of NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program fellows at Carolina. More broadly, this workshop provides resources that help students learn to write better, sell their ideas and market themselves.
You teach chemistry at Durham Technical Community College. Tell us how your experiences in teaching and mentorship are contributing to your career goals.
I try to find every opportunity to continue to grow in my ability to teach and help others succeed. Teaching can come in many forms: In the lab, it is most commonly seen through mentorship. I am always the first one to try to find an undergraduate student or new first-year graduate student and train them in the lab.
I am also very involved in teaching classes. Carolina gives great opportunities to TA labs, but I wanted to get more experience being in the classroom – designing lectures, writing exams – so I applied to be an adjunct professor at Durham Tech, where I teach night classes.
Many people do not understand what a chemist does on a day-to-day basis. I think I was in the same boat as these folks for quite a while, as well. It wasn’t until I was exposed to research that I began to learn what a chemist can actually do: from designing new drugs to curing cancer to water filtration or solar energy.
This is one of the reasons that science communication, outreach and teaching are so important and why I have decided to focus on this as my career.