By Adriana Ramirez, '18
As a high school student, William Stith, '18, was always interested in studying science; he aspired to be a dentist and volunteered with a dental clinic. But his family’s financial situation meant that college might not be in the cards. “I was planning on going into the Navy,” he said, “but then my ROTC teacher told me about Richmond, and its Richmond’s Promise to Virginia program.”
Richmond’s Promise to Virginia offers full tuition, room, and board for Virginia students whose families make less than $60,000 per year. “I knew this was where I needed to go if I wanted to go to school,” Stith said.
After being accepted, Stith realized that Richmond’s innovative approach to the sciences was a gateway for furthering his knowledge, while fostering a love for learning.
Stith began his science education at Richmond before his first year of classes even began by participating in the University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience (URISE). A hallmark of the program is a five-week experience the summer before students’ first year that incorporates a research project in a faculty member’s lab, teamwork, and skill-building activities. Stith had the opportunity to work with biology professor Omar Quintero studying Myosin-19. “This is motor protein in the mitochondria and dysfunctions with it are thought to contribute to disease. The experience really helped me develop my lab technique,” he said.
From there, Stith went on to the Science, Math, and Research Training (SMART) program, which offers first-year students a hands-on, research-based learning environment where chemistry, biology, and calculus are taught in an interdisciplinary manner by faculty from each of the three subjects. Students make connections between disciplines while translating their learning to solve real-world problems.
They also benefit from having a support system of faculty. “[Biology professor] Dr. April Hill reassured us all that we were capable of whatever we wanted to accomplish with science, and I found that to be vitally important,” Stith said. “Each professor I have met has expressed a huge interest in me and my success.”
The culminating experience of the SMART program is a summer research fellowship, which allowed Stith to join Wade Downey’s organic chemistry lab, where he has now spent two summers. Downey’s lab studies the ability of trimethylsilyl trifluoromethanesulfonate (TMSOTf) to mediate new reactivity or increase the efficiency of known reactions. Stith is currently researching TMSOTf’s viability as a substance that can increase the rate for one-pot reactions without itself undergoing any permanent change. “The specific chemistry I do with acetals has huge applications in the plastic industry,” Stith said. “This class of compound is some of the strongest thermoplastic polymer chemists have to offer. My project is focused on is discovering new reliable mechanistic steps for this polymerization using the acid catalyst TMSOTf.”
As he continues to explore and learn, Stith is grateful for the experiences he’s had in URISE and SMART, which have helped him grow as a scientist while building a support network that has continued long after his time in the programs ended.
“One thing I really gained from this program is the sense of community,” he said. “The people I took SMART with, whether or not they continued with science, they are still some of my closest friends and not only that, they are people from whom I have learned to study.”