Biochemistry Junior Focused on Organic Chemistry Earns Prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

April 12, 2024 | News, Research, Student Success, UToday, Alumni, Natural Sciences and Mathematics
By Nicki Gorny

Chloe Villa has presented her research on halogen bonding catalysis at two national chemistry conventions, and she co-authored an article on the use of olefin difunctionalization to synthesize a range of organic compounds of interest in drug development in the journal Organic Letters.

Even more impressive is that she’s done it all in her first two years as an undergraduate student at The University of Toledo.

One of two 2024 Barry Goldwater Scholars at UToledo, Chloe Villa explores organic chemistry with an eye toward drug development in the lab of Dr. Wei Li, a professor in Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

One of two 2024 Barry Goldwater Scholars at UToledo, Chloe Villa explores organic chemistry with an eye toward drug development in the lab of Dr. Wei Li, a professor in Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Villa connected with Dr. Wei Li in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in her first semester at UToledo, and she’s been working alongside him and a team of graduate and undergraduate students ever since to explore mechanisms to create molecules of potential medicinal value.

Now the second-year biochemistry student, who is on track to complete her undergraduate degree in three years thanks to the dual enrollment program College Credit Plus, which allowed her to earn college credits while a student at Sylvania Southview High School in Sylvania, is being recognized for her commitment to research discovery with a prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was established by Congress in 1986 to honor the lifetime work of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. It seeks to identify, encourage and financially support sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming the country’s next generation of research leaders in natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

Villa is one of two UToledo students selected as a 2024 Goldwater Scholar. She’s joined by Sophia Durham, a biology sophomore who works with Dr. Rafael Garcia-Mata in the Department of Biological Sciences. It is the first time the University has had two Goldwater Scholars named in the same year.

“I feel honored to receive the Barry Goldwater Scholarship,” Villa said. “I am passionate about the work I do so it is nice to be recognized for it. It also reinforces the idea that I have found a career path that is for me.”

Villa is a second-generation Rocket, and she brought a keen interest in chemistry to campus when she arrived as a freshman in 2022. She was initially interested in channeling that interest into a medical career, she said, but her lab experiences during the past two years have shifted and solidified her aspirations toward research.

Li’s lab was attractive to her because of its focus on organic chemistry and its potential application in drug development, as well as Li’s positive reputation for supporting undergraduate researchers. They connected when he taught her first-semester organic chemistry class. Villa has since contributed to a variety of research projects in his lab, most of which focus on halogen bonding catalysis or olefin difunctionalization – both means of manipulating molecules to create new small organic molecules with a targeted set of traits.

She is currently working on a light-mediated reaction to achieve this end.

“Chloe is an extremely motivated and dedicated undergraduate researcher,” Li said. “She is a trailblazer in my laboratory, often working on new chemistry at a graduate level as a freshman undergraduate student. She hopes to one day develop new medicines that can help cure disease and ease the pain for patients. What is unique about this young lady is that she does not seek attention or glory of her own, but always cherishes and enjoys the success of others.”

Li’s lab work has opened numerous opportunities to Villa, including attending the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society in 2023 and presenting her research at both the National Organic Chemistry Symposium in 2023 and the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society in 2024. She also presented her research at UToledo’s End of Summer Poster Session in 2023, following her participation in the First Year Summer Research Experience Program, which supports students who contribute to faculty members’ research activities in the summer after their first year at UToledo.

The National Organic Symposium Conference was a particular highlight, she said.

“Because the conference is strictly focused on organic chemistry, I was able to speak with other researchers in depth about the field I want to go into,” she said. “The questions they asked after my presentation were really stimulating.”

Another highlight has been her co-authorship of a research article in Organic Letters in January: “Olefin Difunctionalization for the Synthesis of Tetrahydroisoquinoline, Morpholine, Piperazine, and Azepane.” It explores the use of olefins – a type of hydrocarbon molecule – in the synthesis of a diverse array of N-heterocycles. N-heterocycles, which are compounds with a ring-structure containing at least one nitrogen atom, are key structural units in many drugs.

Outside of the lab, Villa has enjoyed involvement in the Jesup Scott Honors College and the UToledo American Chemical Society Student Chapter, where, as this year’s president, she’s overseen a regular schedule of socials, speakers and tutoring sessions. She’s also been excited to develop a relationship between the chapter and Imagination Station in downtown Toledo.

Villa plans to intern with the chemical manufacturer Huntsman International this summer before returning to campus ahead of a projected graduation in Spring 2025. Then she plans to continue toward a doctorate in chemistry and ultimately a career in pharmaceutical research.

Goldwater Scholarships are highly competitive, with students participating in their schools’ internal competitions before receiving consideration from the Goldwater Foundation. Villa and Durham join, most recently, Derek Kluczynski who was named a Goldwater Scholar in 2023, Jacob Connolly in 2021 and Nathan Szymanski in 2018.

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