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Posted by on Tuesday, April 19, 2016 in Student Experiences.

Paul Kempler knows a thing or two about Chemistry. A senior double majoring in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Vanderbilt, Paul describes how he came declare these majors by saying, “I came into Vanderbilt thinking I would major in biomedical engineering even though I was interested in Chemistry in high school. Every first year engineering student in the School of Engineering takes a module that exposes them to the different tracks in the school. I took the Chemical Engineering module and realized it was something that I liked a lot more.  Then, I realized that there just wasn’t enough Chemistry in Chemical Engineering, so I chose a track that would allow me to double major. Needless to say, I take a lot of Chemistry courses.”

At Vanderbilt, Paul has been putting his knowledge to good use in his research. This past summer, Paul conducted research working with polymers. “Polymers are just plastics, they are in everything around you, from tables to water bottles. They encompass a huge array of chemicals, but essentially they are all about linking small molecules into long chains”. Paul’s research is about finding new ways to create these long chains. “We are working with a technique called ‘surface initiated polymerization’. Instead of creating a polymer in a solution where a bunch of reactions are going on, we start with a molecule that is bounded to a solid surface and build the chain from there.” There are some benefits to doing it this way, says Paul, “typically when you coat something with a plastic, you spray it on, and this becomes a messy process. With our technique, there is a chemical bond between the metal surface and the polymer chain. The specific polymer that we grew forms a lot of bonds with itself and the metal, so it can form a very strong, scratch resistant, corrosion resistant film. This, of course, has lots of real world applications.”

Paul’s professional aspirations have evolved through his research. Coming into Vanderbilt, graduate school was not on Paul’s radar. “I went to career fairs my freshman and sophomore years and saw what jobs were out there. A lot of them seemed interesting.” Working in research, however, changed his course. “I found what I did in research labs to be more engaging that what I would be doing at some chemical engineering and chemistry jobs, and I realized that if I wanted to do something research focused, I would need a doctorate. Since research is something I know I already enjoy doing, it seems like the next logical step.”

For younger students at Vanderbilt interested in doing research, Paul’s advice is straightforward. He says, “reach out to professors! I was able to get involved with research my freshman year because I sent out a lot of emails. There is so much research happening on this campus and so many professors have funding and spots in their labs that if you send out emails and are engaged and excited, someone will take you in.” His other advice for younger students is to not be discouraged if your first attempt doesn’t succeed. “When I sent out a bunch of email, many of them didn’t respond or said, ‘sorry, but we are full right now’. After six or seven tries, someone said, ‘we will take you in and pay you and teach you how to do research in our lab.’ So, don’t be worried about people saying ‘no’, that is just part of the process. If you are proactive and really want to do research, there are opportunities and you will find them.”