Lessons in the Lab
“In order to do research, you have to be immensely creative because you’re thinking of something no one else has thought of before,” Romine says. “Once you get someone who’s creative enough to break the boundary of knowledge in chemistry, you suddenly have a whole new field. Caltech is one of the best places at doing that.”
Romine learned that one of those field-shaping people—Nobel laureate Robert H. Grubbs—was on Caltech’s faculty. And he learned Grubbs’ door was wide open to him as an undergraduate.
Grubbs, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry, is widely recognized for his 2005 Nobel Prize-winning Grubbs’ Catalyst, which allows quicker, more efficient ways to synthetically create the building blocks of everything from polymers to pharmaceuticals. The work done by Grubbs and his collaborators has paved the way for the pursuit of treatments for a diverse array of human health conditions, including hepatitis C, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, fibrosis, cataracts, and migraines. Grubbs is dedicated to setting undergraduates on paths that might lead them to comparable high-impact discoveries. He believes the undergraduate years are a pivotal point in a young scientist’s career.
“Professor Grubbs instills the atmosphere where everybody wants to work together—which is great for an undergraduate like me,” Romine says. “I’m learning a lot and have not just Professor Grubbs as a mentor, but the entire lab of 30 people. It’s a fantastic team.”
Romine has been a part of the Grubbs lab since his junior year. His engagement with the Grubbs group began in the way important research conversations often do at Caltech: over a meal.
At a dinner with Dow-Resnick Fellow and graduate student Anton Toutov and several other chemists, Romine expressed his interest in moving away from organic metallic chemistry into catalysis. Toutov, who had recently realized a big breakthrough in potassium-based catalysis, invited Romine to join his team—provided Grubbs would allow it. Just a few days later, Romine sat down with Grubbs himself, who enthusiastically gave the green light.
Caltech was designed to provide students like Romine with this kind of access to leading professors. When Romine was looking at colleges, Caltech’s close-knit, purposely intimate community with a 3:1 student-faculty ratio is what stood out the most to him.
“At other schools, you may never actually do research until you’re a graduate student, which is disappointing because research is where you learn to think like a chemist,” Romine says. “It’s been an honor to work in this lab—there’s never a dull day.”
As Romine moves on to graduate school, he will take with him an eagerness to mentor undergraduates, as well as gratitude for his experience. “Working with Professor Grubbs has been, by far, the best career decision I’ve ever made,” Romine says. “It’s given me focus on what I’ll be researching for the rest of my life.”
Richard Cox (BS ’42, MS ’46) has been a loyal donor to Caltech for more than 35 years. One of his many philanthropic contributions established a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in 2014. Funds from the Richard Cox SURF enabled Romine to spend the summer of 2015 participating in hands-on research in Grubbs’s lab. Cox’s gift to endow a SURF was matched by funds from the John Stauffer Charitable Trust, which established a $1 million challenge grant that aims to add 16 new SURFs in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. For more information about the Stauffer match, please contact Janny Manasse at firstname.lastname@example.org or 626-395-1530.