Research Advisor: Jeffrey Hartgerink
“I decided to switch to Chemistry after I fell in love with my organic chemistry courses,” said senior Chemistry major Kevin Gonzalez. To incoming students, Gonzalez offers the following advice: “Don't worry if you didn't enjoy chemistry too much in high school! I didn't have a great chemistry education in high school, but I realized how much I loved it partway through my sophomore year at Rice.”
During the spring semester of Gonzalez’s sophomore year, he took Organic Chemistry II with Jeffrey Hartgerink. The problem-solving and pattern recognition of organic chemistry fascinated Gonzalez. “I really loved the organic chemist's thought process, and I love how understanding the behavior of simple molecules at a tiny scale can give us the ability to design medications and unravel how the human body works,” he said. Gonzalez credits Hartgerink with helping him navigate switching to the chemistry major. “He helped mentor me through the change and, the following summer, I began working in his lab. Throughout my time in the lab, he has helped me become an independent, self-motivated scientist,” he explained.
Researchers in the Hartgerink lab design hydrogels, “materials sort of like Jello,” said Gonzalez. These materials consist mostly of water with a network of peptides, short strands of the same amino acids that make up natural proteins and peptides in living organisms, to give the gel solid structure. Many of the peptide-based hydrogels designed in the Hartgerink lab have been shown to promote an ideal response for tissue regeneration and wound healing. By generating slight inflammation, the gels attract immune cells, which release signals that stimulate regeneration of blood vessels and other tissue. The gels also degrade naturally over time as they get replaced by healthy tissue.
Gonzalez’s current project focuses on “trying to understand the different interactions that happen in collagen and then use these interactions to make useful collagen biomaterials,” he explained. “I'm specifically trying to stabilize a collagen hydrogel so that it can be used for different biomedical purposes, like to help with wound healing.”
“I find myself motivated by the prospect of solving this difficult problem that has never been done before. It's thrilling to make a compound that you know no one in the world has held before and to use it as part of a plan,” Gonzalez said. The payoff of the intellectual victories stemming from hard work and critical thinking spur Gonzalez on during challenging parts of his projects. “I'll always remember the moment that I realized my ligation reaction, where I was joining two peptides to each other, was successful. I had spent months working on this project at this point. I had to design, synthesize, and then purify these peptides and had to work around roadblocks and troubleshoot at all of these steps just to get here.” Upon seeing the evidence that his reaction succeeded, “I screamed with joy,” he said.
Science isn’t the only aspect of lab that Gonzalez enjoys. “I really love the people. From my boss to all the undergraduate and graduate students, everyone is really friendly. Everyone talks to one another and is always willing to help,” he said.
Gonzalez finds a similarly strong sense of community among undergraduate chemistry students at Rice. “It’s a smaller major, so you really get to know all your classmates. Everyone is very supportive and helpful which makes working on problem sets and studying for exams fun,” he said. “And, it's great to be surrounded by people who you can nerd out with over how cool a certain molecule or reaction is.”
Extracurricular activities have given Gonzalez the opportunity to build meaningful friendships with people from other backgrounds, too. Through the Wildlife Conservation Club, “I've gotten to meet so many other cool people that I share interests with that I would've never met otherwise,” he said. Members of the Wildlife Conservation Club volunteer to support local conservation efforts, like planting native grasses in prairies or doing beach cleanups in Galveston. “I really love how much these activities let me disconnect from the world while also doing something meaningful,” said Gonzalez.
Over Spring Break of his sophomore and junior years, Gonzalez also led the Wildlife Conservation Club’s annual trip to a Colorado Wolf Sanctuary called Mission: Wolf. “The sanctuary takes care of many wolves and wolf-dog hybrids and uses them to educate people. We stay there for the week and help renovate the facilities while also learning all about animal behavior and conservation,” he explained.
“I really love any hobby that gets me outside, from hiking or fishing to birding,” said Gonzalez. His favorite thing about Houston is the birds. “Houston turns into a hotspot for birding every spring semester, when countless birds fly over during their migration north,” he explained. “Rice offers an introduction to birding to class where I learned all about identifying birds and where to look for them. Now, every year since, I look forward to the spring and to searching for all sorts of different colorful birds.”
Next year, Gonzalez will start a chemistry Ph.D. program at California Institute of Technology, and he later hopes to pursue a career in research. “There are so many questions that need to be answered, which endlessly fuels my curiosity,” he said.