Published 16 June 2017 by Ulrike Böhm

Andrea d’Aquino Didn’t Think She Would Ever Attend University

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Andrea d’Aquino

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Andrea and get inspired.


Picture: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino
Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino

Andrea d’Aquino, 26, from the United States of America is a PhD Student at the Northwestern University, Illinois, USA. She conducts research on coordination-driven, supramolecular chemistry, which is really the study of the interaction of metals with organic compounds, to form structures that can perform useful and interesting chemistry (such as catalysis, sensing and detection, to name a few).


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

It wasn’t until late into my college education that I decided to take general chemistry. I believe I was in my junior year (most students take general chemistry in their freshman year). I was terrified of chemistry and of most science courses; however, 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. This was an incredibly inspiring moment for me. Even though I struggled with exams and homework assignments, I was motivated to better understand the world through science.


Who are your role models?

I have so many role models in my life, and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without them. My greatest role models have really been my parents. They have taught me through example and have encouraged me to be ambitious and tenacious and challenged me to be thoughtful in everything I do, and they inspired me to pursue my wildest dreams with unrelenting determination. My other role models have been my older siblings and my identical twin sister, who have always challenged me to be better and to pursue my dreams with passion. My parents and siblings have been great role models and teachers in my life, and I will always be thankful for their love and support.

My high school teachers at Squalicum High School, have also been incredible role models to me. Without my high school teachers I may have never decided to pursue a college education. My college chemistry professors and, in particular, my research advisor Professor Bussell at Western Washington University played a critical role in my life. I never would have considered pursuing chemistry as my field of study, and never would have known how to conduct research, ask questions and solve problems in the lab without his leadership and guidance.


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

My journey to where I am today has been an unprecedented one; therefore, my story is a complicated one. I am a first-generation college student and the youngest in a family of seven (youngest along with my identical twin sister). I am originally from La Mesa, CA, but when I was ten years old my family moved to Bellingham, WA where I attended middle school, high school and eventually college. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s degree, and I certainly never thought I would be pursuing my PhD in chemistry.

I never could have imagined having the opportunity to attend college — let alone graduate school

I really enjoyed school while growing up — I have always loved learning new things, solving problems and being creative. Although I yearned to one day attend college, my dreams seemed far from my reach because of the financial demand and because no one in my family had a college education. I began working when I was 14 years old when I applied for and received a job picking up garbage along Interstate-5. This was a way for me to earn money and help support my family. Throughout high school I worked a variety of jobs to help support my family, and toward the end of my high school education I had a unique opportunity to get involved with a volunteer program with the local police department where I began learning and training for a career in the police force. Although this was an incredible experience that had profound impacts on my life, I still yearned to pursue higher education and earn a college degree. My aspirations to pursue a college education came with great support of my high school teachers and family, and together my twin sister and I decided to apply to college. I applied for many scholarships in hopes of receiving help with paying college tuition and was lucky enough to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship. Without the help of this scholarship, I don’t think I would be where I am today.


Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino
Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino


I settled on attending college in my home town at Western Washington University, where I was able to save money and help my family. My entrance into Western Washington University (WWU) coincided with an intrigue and passion for patterns and problem solving. My passion for problem solving, coupled with a desire to make a positive impact on society and the world, drove me to pursue science. Upon completing my first chemistry course, I came to realise that the problem solving which truly inspired me involved reactions between molecules. My desire to study chemistry led me to conduct research in the lab of Professor Mark Bussell. In the Bussell lab, I pioneered research on heterogeneous catalysts for the production of ultra-low sulfur fuels and renewable biofuels. Although I faced many obstacles throughout my undergraduate career, conducting research at WWU was the pinnacle of my undergraduate experience and was the impetus in my decision to pursue graduate school in the field of chemistry.

With the support of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, I chose to broaden my chemical knowledge and skills, and pursue a new field of chemical research for my graduate education. I am continuing my chemistry training at Northwestern University (NU), where I am currently conducting organometallic research in the lab of Professor Chad Mirkin. My research focuses on developing novel materials using coordination chemistry, for applications in catalysis, biological sensing and detection. My work in graduate school has opened my mind to a greater world of science and has inspired me to work even harder to solve world problems with science.


Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino
Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino


A theme that I have come to recognise throughout my life and educational career has been that mentorship and role models have played a crucial role in my success as a scientist and independent learner. I never could have imagined having the opportunity to attend college — let alone graduate school — however, with the help, guidance and encouragement from teachers, mentors and role models, I have had the opportunity to pursue my dreams and make meaningful impacts on the world through science. The profound impact that mentorship and role models have had on my life has motivated me to give back to the scientific and general community through mentorship and outreach. For the past three years, I have been an active volunteer with Jugando con la Ciencia (playing with science), which is a program aimed to promote science in the Hispanic communities around Evanston and Chicago, IL. I lead science lessons in Spanish at Washington Elementary School, and teach students about diverse topics in science two to three times a month. Through JCLC, I also organise community outreach events such as the Evanston Arts and Science Fair at the Evanston Public Library. Additionally, I helped organise and implement the first HerStory event in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry. This event was geared toward middle and high school females and involved a scavenger hunt around the museum where they learned about famous women in various fields of science. The goal of this event was to inspire the next generation of women in science by teaching them about the many influential women who have profoundly impacted science and by allowing them to discover more about themselves. Being a first-generation college student, a woman and an underrepresented minority in science, I have come to appreciate the importance of mentorship. Promoting and inspiring women and minorities in science is important to me because I may not have otherwise pursued science – without inspiring teachers, leaders and mentors. For these reasons, I have taken leadership of many outreach efforts geared toward underrepresented minorities and women in science.

My ambitions of attending college brought with it unremitting obstacles; it took tenacity, but more importantly, great mentorship and role models, to overcome adversities as diverse as registering for my first college course to joining a lab. I hope to continue growing as a student, mentor and scientist, and pursue my dream of being a chemistry professor and a mentor to other students.


Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino
Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino


What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

It is hard to say which project has been the coolest to work on — each project is different and unique. I really enjoyed the project I worked on as an undergraduate which involved the synthesis of nickel phosphide hydrotreating catalysts. It was a really incredible experience to be able to synthesise, characterise and then test the catalytic activity of my catalysts, and to see their real-world applications. But it has also been a great experience to work on more fundamental and exploratory chemistry in graduate school.


What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

I am very proud of the work I have accomplished in both my undergraduate research and the work I am currently conducting during my PhD. I never could have imagined that I would have the chance to be a scientist, let alone pursue a PhD in chemistry. It gives me great pride to conduct chemistry research, to solve problems through science and then to share that knowledge with others.


What is a “day in the life” of Andrea like?

Gosh, a day in my life is so unpredictable! I think that this may be because graduate school is so unpredictable! Grad school can be stressful, so I like to start my day with a relaxing cup of tea and occasionally a morning run. I bike to work each day (sometimes even in the middle of Chicago winters), and typically respond to emails and get set up for the day. Usually, I will plan experiments the day before and have all chemicals and glassware set and ready to go the next day, that way I can get to work and set up a reaction of an experiment as soon as possible. Throughout my day I tend to have one or two meetings and balance those with lab work, responding to emails, reading papers, writing and discussing science with my lab mates. I typically get home in time for a late dinner, at which point I am almost always too tired to do anything other than relax and fall asleep. My days can be busy and stressful, but I enjoy the intensity and excitement of conducting new and exciting research.

I want to help people and positively impact the world through science.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Broadly, I am — and have always been — seeking to positively impact the world by helping people and solving problems. In terms of my career, I believe that I can accomplish this through mentorship and leadership as a professor. It is still a little too early for me to say decisively what it is I want to do with my life after graduate school, but I do know that whatever I do or wherever I go, I want to help people and positively impact the world through science.


What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I have many passions outside of my work. The world is a great place with many opportunities and many things to learn. In my free time, I enjoy cooking new and exotic foods, reading, writing, painting, running, playing tennis with my identical twin sister, playing volleyball, volunteering, dancing, exploring the great outdoors, and trying new restaurants. There are so many activities I enjoy, but never enough time to enjoy all of them!


What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

I can’t identify just one single piece of advice to pass along to other women in science, because there are so many important lessons/pieces of advice that I have learned or have been given that I think are important to pass along. Therefore, my advice is three-fold:

(1) Never give up on your dreams — the sky is your limit.

(2) Be ambitious and unafraid of failure or tribulations.

(3) Keep an open mind.

These pieces of advice have so far served me well, and even now I still remind myself to keep these lessons and pieces of advice in mind and apply them to my own life.

the next great breakthrough in science will be solving the world’s environmental and global energy problems

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

I believe that the next great breakthrough in science will be solving the world’s environmental and global energy problems. I believe these are big issues facing our world and many scientists are working relentlessly to solve them.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

The lack of females in science is of course a multifaceted problem. I think that one thing we need to do in order to increase the number of females in science is begin with grassroots efforts. We need to encourage and inspire girls to pursue science at a young age. We need to support all women and minorities in science and in higher education, and establish environments that are accepting of all backgrounds. I believe that there are many women (and minorities) who have the desire to be a scientist, but have been discouraged in a variety of ways. We must support women (and minorities) throughout all stages of academics, and make sure that we continue to maintain this support in higher education and beyond.


Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino
Photo: Courtesy of Andrea d’Aquino

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.