Skip to main content

Student Spotlight: Haley Wellman


By Ruth Barrera

Haley Wellman is an undergradraduate student in Professor Stupp's groupHaley is from Chicago's Old Town neighborhood where she's lived her entire life. Haley attended Whitney Young High School and graduated valedictorian from the class of 2018. Haley initially entered Northwestern as a Global Health major and Spanish/ French minor with the intention of pursuing medicine. However, after joining the Stupp Group during the summer of 2019, her plans quickly changed when she realized her love for chemistry.


What made you decide to attend Northwestern University?

I am very close with my family and knew that I wanted to go to school close to home so I debated between attending Northwestern or the University of Chicago (UChicago). Through the CPS Bridge Program offered in high school, I took some classes at UChicago that gave me a good sense of the academic environment. However, I always felt like something was missing. When I toured Northwestern, I felt my tour guide’s excitement and passion for the university and found that what was missing at UChicago was a sense of community and support where everyone was immediately welcomed. Then after chatting with students and professors, it was clear that I belonged in the Purple Mafia. I also fell in love with the campus, especially the Lakefill where I have spent the past three years hammocking, paddle boarding, and studying with friends.

What has been your favorite Chemistry class and why?

My favorite chemistry class at Northwestern has been Chemistry 350-1, which is the first class in the Advanced Laboratory sequence. I am fascinated by the work I do in the lab whether it is for class or research. It is incredible that I possess the ability to brainstorm the structure of a molecule, design a way of synthesizing it, and apply its properties towards advancements in medicine or environmental sustainability. I have enjoyed this class more than any other at Northwestern because of the lab techniques we practiced and learned, such as temperature dependent experiments in NMR and Ugi identification puzzle experiments. I am looking forward to the second and third part of the sequence, especially when I get to design and execute my own research project over the course of a few weeks.

Is there a professor that has made an impact on your academic career?

In my first quarter at Northwestern, I took Chemistry 110 and met Professor Fred Northrup. At that point in time, I had no intention of pursing chemistry as my major or career path. Then, this past fall quarter, Professor Northrup taught the first few weeks of Chemistry 350-1 and helped me through graduate school applications. He has supported me academically and seen me grow into a well-rounded, confident person. He constantly gave me positive, constructive feedback that helped me with how I approach both written and oral exams. I feel as if Professor Northrup truly wants his students to learn rather than simply pass through the motions of taking his class.

What has been the highlight of your academic career thus far?

The highlight of my academic career has most definitely been my experience as a Think Swiss fellow. I moved across the globe during the Spring quarter last year to conduct research in supramolecular chemistry with Professor Wennemers in Switzerland. This experience has opened countless doors for me including an annual dinner at the Ambassador of Switzerland’s house which I attended this past November. The dinner gave me an opportunity to speak and bond with Ambassador Pitteloud about future scientific collaboration between the United Sates and Switzerland.

Tell us more about your Think Swiss Fellowship experience in Zürich.

This past summer, I spent three months in Switzerland as a Think Swiss Fellow. The program funds 25 select students who are pursuing their Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate at a university in the United States or Canada to do research in Switzerland. I joined Dr. Helma Wennemers’ group at ETH Zürich to study applications for her supramolecular triaxial weave: a monolayer, hexagonal sheet with regular internal cavities created by the weaving of strands of oligoproline 9-mer building blocks. Through this opportunity, I was able to experience the rigorous, innovative, and passionate community at this institution.

Upon arriving to the Hönggerberg campus, my breath was taken away by the technologically advanced, massive buildings that housed the world’s top research (after Northwestern, of course). Although I was lost at first, I eventually mastered navigating through the five-finger building to my lab hood. I could not believe that each lab member had their own rotovap and energy saving hood shield. In addition, I was in awe of the NMR and mass spectrometry facilities. I was having trouble detecting my compound in a clean spectra and the NMR staff suggested new techniques and solvents that I never would have imagined using. I also found that the labs in the chemistry department were extremely friendly and promoted productive collaboration. For example, I was able to test a breadth of fluorinated molecules in my host-guest's chemistry experiments because of the chemical exchange system set up in the department. I also was able to use advanced spectra techniques not available in the general facilities, such as a MALDI-TOF machine that belonged to another lab.

The learning environment at ETH Zürich was driven by collaboration, motivation, and innovation. When I arrived at Zürich, I was immediately welcomed by my flatmates at the Student Village on the Hönggerberg Campus. During dinners, we would discuss our research experiences, debate on novel topics, and bond over our love of science. In the Wennemers Group, I often found myself discussing emerging research in our field, coming up with creative solutions for roadblocks in others’ projects, and sharing my opinions on an article that was recently published over coffee. I looked forward to group activities, such as playing volleyball and soccer during the day, or watching the Euro Cup matches after work. It was specifically the passion and excitement that the individuals in the Wennemers Group had about chemistry that officially persuaded me to pursue a graduate degree.

As for my life outside the lab, I made tons of friends with extremely welcoming Swiss students. I quickly became a part of the Zürich community. My favorite activities to do after work included jumping into the Limmat on sunny days, enjoying fresh cheese and divine chocolate by the lake, spending late nights with friends at the Opera Plaza, and trying all the amazing food Zürich has to offer. My favorite activity to do on the weekends was explore the breathtaking landscape. I ended up hiking six mountains, visiting 8 cantons, and touring over 14 cities. Since I am native to Chicago, I am used to the corn fields of Illinois where all the land is flat so traveling to a country dominated by mountains was scary and unfamiliar. My love of nature drove me to take advantage of the beautiful scenery around me, but I had little experience with hiking. I can confidently say that during the three months I spent abroad, I became one with the mountains. I looked forward to every weekend when I would venture out into the countryside and conquer a new peak. Each place I went to was more exciting than the last but my most memorable hike was at Beverin, where I spent the whole day searching for crystals. I ended up bringing some of the crystals I mined to my lab, where we debated about their structure and chemical makeup.

Now that classes are on campus, what are you most looking forward to this year?

I am most looking forward to connecting with my classmates. Last year I did not make any new friends or build any solid connections with my classmates due to the nature of online classes. We barely collaborated while studying for a test or working through challenging problems. This past fall, it was so refreshing to be able to meet the faces I saw online in person. We strengthened our connections, met in the main library often to work together, and bonded during lab. We even had a COVID-friendly get together for all upperclassmen chemistry majors where we got to talk about subjects outside of school.

In retrospect, is there a positive you’ve seen or experienced from this pandemic?

I am not a fan of online school for I find it extremely difficult to stay motivated and focused during classes. I especially find it hard to participate in online labs since it takes away from the hands-on training and experience that I love to do. However, when in-person research was shut down due to the pandemic, I had the opportunity to work on a project from home; researching the interface between peptide self-assembly and machine learning. In my time away from lab, I chose to learn how to organize data through coding in R-Studio. I explored literature and created a database of peptide amphiphiles (PA) which documented their sequence, solubility, kinetic energy barrier, ionic strength, and morphology. My database was then used to help create a machine learning algorithm, written by my graduate student mentor, that predicted new PA sequences and their morphologies. This was the first set of data about PAs ever to be made in a machine-readable format. It helps discover novel PA sequences more quickly than manual synthesis and coarse-grained simulations.

Where do you hope to be in your career in the next 10 years?

This past quarter, I applied to graduate schools with the intention of receiving my PhD in Chemistry, specifically supramolecular chemistry. After working in a lab for three years, I find that the adoption of research breakthroughs into commercially relevant applications need to be improved. After receiving my graduate degree in chemistry, I wish to work on integrating promising research findings into climate change and medicine. I would like to start a company that focuses on the mass-production, patents, and government approval of new molecular medicinal tools and unique solutions to the excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If that does not work out, I want to work with an aerospace company on zero-gravity chemical synthesis or a pharmaceutical company doing research for drug design and delivery.


Back to top