Cecilia Eiroa Lledo ’15 and Grace Chong ’15 both launched into PhD research programs from their undergrad training at Concordia, and today both are flourishing in their first year of doctoral studies because of their preparation at CUI.
“Grace and Cecilia both chose to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities afforded them at Concordia,” says Dr. John Kenney, professor of chemistry and chemical physics. “They were thankful to be here, serious about doing well in courses and working with the Concordia science faculty.”
Cecilia is now at Washington State University pursuing a PhD in analytical environmental radiochemistry. Her present research is on a man-made element called technetium, a byproduct of uranium fission, which exists almost exclusively in nuclear plants. The goal: to discover how technetium bonds with certain ligands so that if it leaks into the soil, scientists will know how to clean it up.
“When I decided to do environmental chemistry, I knew I wanted to help the world in whatever way I could,” Cecilia says. “So little is known about this metal. I absolutely love doing radioactive work no one has done before. It’s fulfilling to know you are the first person to look at some data or figure out a process.”
Grace is at USC’s PhD program in molecular biology doing research on DNA repair.
“Everybody gets DNA damage from something as simple as sunlight to the oxygen you breathe,” she says. “How does your body fix those things? That’s what I was studying in my recent lab rotation: how the body repairs certain problems. The research is really, really cool.”
Both women came to CUI intending to go into the medical field, but changed their minds because of the research they were involved in at CUI.
“When I first met Dr. Kenney, he said he was notorious for converting pre-med students into research students and in my case, he was successful,” says Grace who intended to become a pediatrician and family doctor and “thought research was being stuck in a lab all day by yourself.”
Working with [my Concordia professors] helped me recognize that I have passion for teaching."
But after doing research with Dr. Kenney, “I found out the challenges are interesting— to think about a problem and then design experiments, make sense of the results and figure out what’s important,” Grace says. “Also, training other people was a lot of fun. That’s what pushed me to become more of a professor rather than to go straight into industry.”
For Cecilia, her present path began in a general chemistry class at Concordia with Professor Inga Kenney. “A lot of people said she was hard, but she was such an amazing teacher that it affirmed that I wanted to do chemistry,” Cecilia says.
Their CUI training went deeper, too. Dr. Ebel’s class on the philosophy of the sciences “was amazing and really taught you how to defend your faith as a scientist and how those two worlds, though viewed as separate, really are not,” Cecilia says. “Science was started by Christians trying to figure out the world God created for us.”
Grace and Cecilia partnered together as undergraduates to create a conference for undergraduate research on campus, and were responsible for coming up with the program, setting the schedule, reserving rooms, printing name tags and more.
“It was really hands-on, figuring out how to make it work,” Cecilia says.
Both did summer internships with Dr. Kenney in the lab and volunteered at the Village of Hope, hosting dozens of kids for on-campus science camps.
“It made me more patient, having to deal with little kids,” says Cecilia. “Sometimes they won’t listen or they get bored. The best thing was when you did an experiment and the foam came up and you could feel the kids go, ‘Whoa!’”
Both women had “magnificent President’s Showcases” in their senior years, Kenney says. “They finished very close, first and second in the competition. They did great projects and incredible work.”
At the end of four years, Cecilia says she “really felt like Dr. and Professor Kenney were my adoptive science parents. I did research with them but they also helped me with my personal life and faith...Going to Concordia, your faith and the path God chose for you as a scientist are not seen as contrary to one another.”
Virtually all science students at CUI now are engaged in research at a significant level."
Dr. Kenney helped her find internships that fit her interests, and mentioned Washington State to her.
“That’s when I found there was this whole field for radio-chemistry and how important it is to study these elements, so I applied to this as my number one school,” Cecilia says. “I feel like I definitely chose the right place. I’m really happy living here.”
Grace applied to doctoral programs as well and was accepted by UCLA, USC, UCSD and Rice. She credits mentors Dr. Lindsay Kane-Barnese ’05 and Dr. Kenney.
“Working with them helped me recognize that I have passion for teaching,” Grace says. “As of now I want to be a university professor, researcher and teacher.”
Kenney says that virtually all science students at CUI now are engaged in research at a significant level.
“Our facilities and equipment inventory have grown exponentially,” he says. “We have summer institutes for high school students and very high-ability Concordia students studying to get degrees in these disciplines. Virtually all do extended research projects over many semesters.”
By his count, four students each year go on to PhD programs which “is pretty significant for a program of our size.”
More than that, “they excel in those programs. That tells us that our coursework is rigorous, our students are learning the fundamentals, and their extensive exposure to research as undergraduates is positioning them to be PhD students.”
“Concordia’s professors are amazing,” Cecilia says. “They take care of their students so well and they know where you fit.”