As a May 2012 chemistry major grad, and currently a graduate student aiming for a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nick Serratore can offer a few words of advice for the chemistry majors at his alma mater. One of them is “patience.” The others could be summarized as: “Think about what you want to do in the future, and find a lifestyle that supports that vision.”
A Grand Rapids, Minn., native, Serratore started his graduate studies in late August with four two-and-a-half-hour tests covering the fundamental areas of chemistry: inorganic, organic, analytical and physical.
“Basically, it was everything you learned in four years at St. Thomas,” Serratore said. “I’m happy to say that I passed all four of my exams.”
Serratore, 23, got his initial start in chemistry at St. Thomas four years ago, but what lies ahead now is five years of studies at Wisconsin (some chemistry areas require six years), and then maybe he’ll work a couple of years at a high-level research lab, and then perhaps apply for an academic or industrial research position.
Back at St. Thomas, Serratore conducted extensive research into the synthesis of isoluminol derivatives, compounds that give off bluish light when mixed with an appropriate oxidizing agent. Isoluminols have medical applications, including measuring vitamin D in the body, and have been used extensively in detecting trace amounts of blood at crime scenes. He would experiment by making various changes to the structure of the isoluminol molecule in an effort to improve its chemiluminescence. Success did not come easily, but there, in the lab, he learned patience.
“It’s a grueling process,” Serratore remarked. “The first three months that I worked in Dr. (Tom) Ippoliti’s lab at St. Thomas I did not have a single reaction that worked. I had no positive results for three months. It’s a very, very grueling process. Patience, and just being able to roll with the punches, is one thing that I definitely learned.”
The isoluminol research at St. Thomas was a “pet project” that he started during the summer after his freshman year. "Nick was one of the most productive research students I have ever had," Ippoliti remarked. "The number of new compounds he made is astonishing! He knew every instrument inside out and was a tremendous help to the other research students. We will all miss Nick and the contributions he made to the Chemistry Department."
Serratore's studies at Wisconsin are a “whole new field” but still within the area of organic chemistry. “What I was doing was organic synthesis,” he said. “Now I’m working on developing new methods for organic synthesis.”
At Wisconsin this fall he will be teaching two laboratory sections, taking four classes, and rotating in multiple labs in an effort to select a research group; ultimately, in November, he’ll select a research group to work in for the next five years. Other obstacles he will need to pass along the way to a Ph.D. include a second-year seminar presentation, an original research proposal in his third year, and a final thesis defense at the end of his graduate education.
“We are absolutely forbidden from declaring what group we would like to do research in right now. The only thing I can tell you is I will be doing research in a group that blends inorganic and organic chemistry,” Serratore said.
In the meantime, the lifestyle of a graduate student is not idyllic. Although chemistry graduate students have their tuition paid and are on stipend, there are drawbacks to the extended years of studies. Serratore says that his commitment to chemistry will not allow him to marry or have a family for at least three to four years.
While that may give pause to current undergraduate chemistry students, he offers this advice: “I would definitely advise them to look at their options, think about what they want to do in the future, and find a lifestyle that is supported by what that future holds.”
But in the end, there are rewards for those who endure the process of earning a Ph.D. in chemistry. Ippoliti has no doubt about what lies ahead for Serratore.
"He has a great future ahead of him," Ippoliti said, "and I look forward to his future accomplishments."
Editor's note: Nick Serratore's research was funded in part by a Summer Housing grant. He also traveled thanks to a Student Travel grant. Read about Nick Serratore's photo shoot in our Depth of Field blog.