Kayla Mathiowetz is a Chemistry Major on the Premed track. She is graduating this Spring in the Class of 2021.
Why did you choose to study Chemistry at Northeastern?
My dad works as a chemist at Pfizer, so I have been exposed to the field of Chemistry since I was a child and I was always interested in hearing about his job and learning about how molecules interact with each other. When I was in high school and took chemistry for the first time, I found it came very naturally to me. I was also interested in medicine but was unsure of whether or not I wanted to pursue a pre-med track. When looking at Northeastern, I liked how close-knit the chemistry program was and how many research opportunities were available to undergraduate students. I did not initially come to Northeastern as a pre-med student so when I made that decision, I was concerned about fulfilling all of my premed requirements but the flexibility of the chemistry program allowed me to complete all of the required coursework, in a four-year program, and even have space for more elective classes.
What is your favorite part of the Chemistry program? How do you find it has helped you on the Premed track?
The support system that exists within the Chemistry Department at Northeastern is something that has helped me tremendously throughout my time here. First of all, every freshman chemistry major is placed in a mentorship group within the first week of classes to learn from upperclassmen mentors about what it’s like being a chemistry major. Additionally, the most impactful part of the chemistry program to me has been NUSAACS, Northeastern’s Student Affiliates of the Chemical Society Chapter, where I’ve met a lot of my closest friends. Being on the pre-med track, there are many different requirements to balance, from classwork to clinical experience to volunteering, and it can feel overwhelming sometimes. Meeting other chemistry majors on the pre-med path and making friends in my classes have helped me to explore other opportunities and seek help when I am struggling with understanding a concept from class.
When did you become a pre-med student?
As I mentioned before, I was not premed when I came to Northeastern, but it was something I had strongly considered. As a freshman, my plan was to pursue a PhD in chemistry and have a career either in industry or in academia. During my first co-op at Kaleido Biosciences, a microbiome company, was when I first started to consider the pre-med program. I was on the chemistry research team but continuously found myself drawn towards the medical side of things; I loved learning about the clinical trials going on at the company and learning about the multitude of ways in which the gut microbiome affects someone’s overall health. Although I enjoyed the research I was doing at Kaleido, I realized that I would be more fulfilled in a career where I was directly working with people to solve their problems. After that co-op, I decided to begin the pre-med track and recently completed at co-op at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in a Medical Surgical ICU which confirmed my desire to become a doctor.
How have you balanced your academics and extracurricular activities while maintaining excellent academic performance?
I am someone who likes to have various responsibilities, as I find that being busy helps me stay on track academically. I have participated in quite a few clubs outside of NUSAACS while at Northeastern, including NUStage, Alternative Spring Break, and Delta Phi Epsilon Sorority. I’ve also done research most semesters I’ve been here. When COVID hit and I no longer had as many responsibilities, a lot of my motivation went away until I found other things to do to keep myself busy to supplement my lack of extracurricular activities. In addition to staying busy, I’ve found that taking classes that are interesting to me helps me stay motivated. I make sure I have at least one humanities class in my schedule each semester to help me stay balanced and so I have opportunities to explore interests outside of chemistry, such as music and Spanish.
How did you become involved with Beyond Benign? What have you taken away from this experience?
Beyond Benign was one of the first volunteer programs I learned about at Northeastern, and I found out about it through NUSAACS. Beyond Benign is an outreach program run through the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, and volunteers run demonstrations to teach students of all ages about green chemistry. There are 12 different principles of green chemistry, but essentially it is about finding ways to reduce chemical waste and use reagents that are more benign than a lot of traditionally used reagents. I hadn’t heard about green chemistry until I came to Northeastern, but as soon as I heard about it and did some research on it, I knew it was something I was interested in. An incredible amount of chemical waste is produced daily, and finding ways to limit this waste is critical. On top of my interest in green chemistry itself, I liked that Beyond Benign gave me the opportunity to work with kids. Since volunteering at Beyond Benign, I have become very conscious of the waste that I produce when I am working in a lab and I am always trying to explore how to make reactions more efficient. Beyond Benign also focuses a lot on different innovations people have come up with to recycle waste (for example, making Styrofoam out of woodchips) and it has challenged me to become more creative with what I do with my own waste.
What can you share from your experience working with Professor Smotkin?
I started my research with Professor Smotkin freshman year because of my interest in green chemistry. In his lab, I worked on an analytical chemistry project where I was studying various polymer membranes that are used in batteries. Even though many batteries are made with lithium, professor Smotkin and his group focused on finding other metals that are chemically similar to lithium without the toxic consequences for the environment. Specifically, I was doing infrared spectroscopy to help characterize the membrane-metal interactions when the membrane was exposed to different humidity and temperature levels – different environments that batteries could be exposed to. I appreciate the opportunity to apply what I had learned in Beyond Benign to an actual research lab and continue my work in a summer internship with Professor Smotkin to continue my research and prepare an academic paper for publication. I am now on two publications, and am proud of the work that I did in his lab.
What other co-ops or research did you complete during your time at Northeastern?
After my research with Professor Smotkin, I decided to focus more on medicinal chemistry. Following my co-op at Kaleido Biosciences, I started doing research in the Center for Drug Discovery where I worked on a few different projects related to cannabinoid research. Cannabinoids (compounds whose structure is derived from cannabis) are a really cool pharmaceutical target, as they have pain-killing properties while being significantly less addictive than other pain-killers and could be used in helping combat the opioid crisis. I am doing my capstone right now under the supervision of Dr. Alexandrios Makriyannis, Dr. Thanh Ho, and a graduate student mentor Maria Gerasi on a project focused on the synthesis of a target for a specific cannabinoid receptor. Apart from research, I recently completed a co-op at Beth Israel as a Patient Care Technician and I continue to work there part-time. That co-op was my first time working with patients, and my day-to-day responsibilities included monitoring patient’s blood sugar, helping them with activities of daily living, and addressing any other needs they may have. I learned how to work with people of all different ages, backgrounds, and cognitive states, and I loved learning how best to communicate with everyone. Working there during a pandemic was especially taxing, but it made me realize how much I want to be a doctor.
What are your plans after degree completion?
I am going to be taking a gap year after graduation, but my plans for the gap year are still being solidified. I have recently started looking for medical assistant and patient care assistant jobs in the Boston area so that I can work while applying to medical schools. I’m planning to start medical school in the fall of 2022 to pursue a career in primary care pediatrics. There is an overall lack of primary care physicians in the country, and I would like to work where there is a particular need for pediatricians. Although I am open to exploring other areas of medicine, I hope to pursue a field where I can develop close relationships with my patients.