B.J. Wright '03
When asked whether he began his freshman year at Willamette with Ivy League ambitions, 2003 chemistry graduate B.J. Wright promptly answers no. But what he did bring to Willamette was an interest in research science, which has culminated in a 2005 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
The award will provide him with about $27,000 annually for the next three years to support his graduate studies in chemistry at Columbia University. "And I'm doing the same thing as I did at Willamette," says Wright, "only now I get to focus more. I realized how little I knew when I first got to Columbia, but I also realized how lucky I was to have the kind of mentor I had at Willamette. I got real, hands-on experience with a truly knowledgeable professional."
Wright's interest in research science was first cultivated during his junior year at McNary High School in Salem, Ore. "I took my first research science course, so I thought I'd pursue biology in college," he says. "Chemistry was not the original plan, but it's very challenging and very exciting."
Although Wright intended to pursue science in college, he admittedly didn't know much about Willamette. Still, he says, "it was one of only two schools I applied to." At the time, he'd been living in Salem for a little more than a year. He'd moved several times before, so staying in one place was something he desired.
Wright's high school swim coach had encouraged him to attend Willamette, knowing he'd have the opportunity to compete in swimming at the NCAA Division III level. Not only did Wright swim at Willamette for four years during which he took home a conference championship in the 50-yd. freestyle, but also he distinguished himself as president of Sigma Chi fraternity and as a top scholar.
"I chose to do chemistry because I found it most challenging," says Wright, "but I should say it was also largely because of my experience with Jeff Willemsen."
Willamette chemistry Professor Jeff Willemsen, referred to by his students as "Dr. J," was both a mentor and a friend to Wright. Under Willemsen's guidance, Wright participated in a synthetic organic chemistry project that involved collaborating with chemists at Oregon State University. Further research he conducted with Willemsen earned him a Presidential Award, a full-tuition scholarship for the first semester of his senior year at Willamette; the research worked toward the total synthesis of kalkitoxin, a potent sodium channel blocker. This particular experience fueled his desire to do similar research in graduate school.
"I'm not quite sure what I'll do when I finish," says Wright, who is completing his second year of a five-year-long Ph.D. program. "I came in thinking I'd want to teach, but now I'm not totally sure. For now, I'm just having a really great experience with chemistry...and New York City!"