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Westminster College senior shoots for the stars during summer internship

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Posted on Monday, October 25, 2021

A Westminster chemistry major spent the summer months studying Pyruvic acid as part of a virtual National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program with the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM).

Riana Smith, a senior from Kane, Pa., specifically worked on finding evidence for a specific molecule, Pyruvic acid, in the interstellar medium—clouds of gas and dust in the universe. Smith used spectroscopic data from space and aligned lab data for Pyruvic acid to it. When the data matched, she was able to conclude that Pyruvic acid does exist at that specific location in space.

Smith worked under the mentorship of Dr. Susanna Widicus Weaver, UWM Vozza Professor of Chemistry and Astronomy, and alongside Connor Wright, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry who works under the Widicus Weaver Group.

After attending a virtual talk presented by Weaver in November 2020, Smith reached out to Weaver and asked how she could be involved in her research.

“She was so impressed and excited she sent me a direct link to the REU she was a part of, and I got it!” said Smith. “She’s been my research adviser ever since.”

Because Smith’s internship was conducted virtually and required a lot of computational work, most of her time was spent on her laptop.

“I had to adapt to a lot of challenges like learning how to operate Linux, or how to code in MATLAB coding language,” said Smith.

A virtual internship also meant that she couldn’t interact face-to-face with Weaver or other researchers, but frequent Zoom meetings were held to keep the connections open. She was able to travel to UWM at the end of the program to meet Weaver and her fellow research classmates.

Although Smith thought it would be impossible to fit in at a large, research heavy institution coming from a smaller college, she was pleasantly surprised at the support and excitement she received.

“Now I have a ton of support from people who are pushing me to be my best, a physical chemistry publication with my name on it—which is currently under review to be published in the American Chemical Society Journal of Earth and Space Science—and a lot more confidence in my abilities,” Smith said.

Smith said internship opportunities like hers are vital to building skills necessary for careers beyond college. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry while continuing to study astrochemistry.   

To learn more about Westminster College’s chemistry program, click here.

Above: Riana Smith '22 visits the Wisconsin-based Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of modern astrophysics featuring the world's largest refracting telescope, during a visit to the University of Wisconsin over the summer

~ Mackenzie Basalla ’19