August 23, 2021
Elizabeth Wells Kelley was born and raised in Mechanicsville, Virginia. Before coming to the University of Chicago, she earned a bachelor of science in chemistry at the College of William & Mary, where she was a research assistant, teaching assistant, and tutor.
Elizabeth is entering her fifth year in the Department of Chemistry doctoral program. She has taken time off during her program to teach high school chemistry at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Now returned to her research, she said her work spans two subdisciplines of chemistry. “The first is organic synthesis, which involves planning intricate reaction pathways to produce complex ‘natural products,’ A.K.A. molecules found in nature which often have exciting implications for human health, quality of life, and the environment,” she said.
The second is chemical education. “This involves scientifically investigating how humans learn, teach, and interact with chemistry so that educators and policymakers will make evidence-based decisions about how to cultivate future generations of scientists,” she said.
We interviewed her about her experiences at UChicago over email.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
I made detailed pro/con lists for every PhD program I visited. UChicago came out on top for most of the categories I considered important for my happiness and academic/career fulfillment. There was an advisor in the chemistry department who I felt was a great match for me and my future goals, and the department’s laboratories and facilities were up-to-date, safe, and overall pleasant work environments to physically be in.
Additionally, I was impressed by the career department, teaching center, and other university resources outside of the department. The graduate students also seemed genuinely happy, which was not at all a common trait at other top tier schools I toured.
Finally, although Chicago is a huge city, it exceeded my expectations for the type of lifestyle it could offer my spouse and me, especially compared to other urban schools. As a country person, I prefer trees and quiet. Chicago is covered in trees and parks, and the city is so spread out that I never feel crushed by humanity. We can afford to live in a comfortable style here, own dogs, and go out to eat on the weekend.
Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
One thing I am proud of is that I was recently promoted to Lead Fellow for the Chicago Center for Teaching’s fellowship program for graduate students. In that capacity, I train the fellows, guide their projects, and help manage the bureaucratic side of things. As such, this role enables me to make a wide-reaching impact on the status of teaching and learning in many departments across the university.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
I have two large dogs, and my spouse and I love playing and cuddling with them. We go to a large off-leash dog park every couple weekends so the dogs can run around and swim in a lake.
What are your plans post-UChicago?
I currently plan to apply for positions as a college professor. I am very interested in continuing my career in academia as I want to both teach and conduct research simultaneously.
What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
There are four major areas of support that I consider crucial to the success I’ve enjoyed so far. Firstly, my advisor, Scott Snyder, has supported me through every endeavor I’ve proposed (whether in the lab or out) and through the emotional struggles that come with pursuing a PhD. He truly cares about my well-being and my future and he is ready to do what he can to help me forward. Secondly, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which supports me financially, has opened many doors for me and given me tremendous flexibility for which projects I pursue. Thirdly, the university’s career department, teaching center, and N-12 school have offered me tremendous professional development and other opportunities I doubt I would find at many other schools. And finally, I benefit in general from a tendency for UChicago people to just say “yes” to new ideas!
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
First, make a list of the things which are most important to you. Then, start talking to people who hold a variety of positions, and ask them questions to determine whether the school is the right fit for you. Too often, prospective students come to visit and, when someone asks if they have any questions, the students look tongue-tied! Make sure you start off by identifying what you consider important so you know what to ask about.
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
My background as a woman in STEM and my professional development as a teacher have opened my eyes to the struggles that different groups face at various levels, as well as how to work to address those challenges from both sides of the aisle.