Clare Boothe Luce Scholar Explores the Art of Chemistry

Natalie Williams

B.S. Chemistry

Senior Natalie Williams is the recipient of prestigious awards in Chemistry, but she also nurtures a passion for art and music that has led her to exciting career opportunities.

Natalie, a Chemistry major, has been selected as an American Chemical Society (ACS) Scholar, an extremely competitive award for students who identify as African-American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, or American Indian and plan to pursue careers in chemistry. The $5,000 scholarship is awarded to only 350 students nationally each year.

The award allows Natalie to pair with an ACS mentor and enjoy a free year of membership in the professional organization, including access to networking events.

Natalie is also a Clare Boothe Luce Scholar, placing her within the ranks of the most successful women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields around the country. “It’s wonderful to be part of a program that includes accomplished women at the top of their fields,” she said.

In the summer of 2018, Natalie joined a research group led by Philip Lukeman, Ph.D., that designs, synthesizes, and analyzes materials using DNA nanotechnology. Using the chemistry and biotechnology skills she developed in coursework and his lab, she makes nanometer-scale DNA “origami” objects, which “fold” themselves into particular shapes. Natalie’s project involved making a “DNA Triangle" with edges that are 100 nanometers long, about 1/500 of the width of a human hair. Because of their intrinsic properties and sizes, these triangles, when attached to electrodes, enable the electrodes to act as prototypes for devices used to detect biological moieties like viruses. 

Although the research requires long hours, including weekends and late nights, Natalie remains dedicated. “The results depend on you, and that pushes you forward,” she said.

“Natalie came to my research group ‘wanting to learn how to solve problems’ and she is succeeding in that endeavor by hard, patient and careful work,” said Dr. Lukeman. “She is a joy to work with in both a professional and personal context - she will go far.”

In October 2019, Natalie, along with Dr. Lukeman and his research group will participate in the BIOMOD research competition in San Francisco, CA. BIOMOD is an international bio-molecular design competition for students sponsored by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. It involves the self-assembly of biological molecules into nanoscale structures. “I’m looking forward to showing off our hard work to a gathering of like-minded scientists,” she said.

Natalie became interested in chemistry as a middle school student because she started making her own cosmetics and learning about the chemical properties of various substances in make-up. She completed College Advantage courses while a student at St. Agnes Academic High School in College Point, NY and decided to attend St. John’s because of the availability of scholarships and the individualized attention faculty in Chemistry department give their students.

“At St. Johns, the chemistry labs that I take are taught by professors and not TAs,” she said. “You get real hands-on experience from experts in the field.”

A well-rounded student, Natalie is pursuing a minor in Graphic Design and has completed music courses in addition to her B.S. degree. She thought of her interest in art and chemistry as two separate pursuits until taking graphic design courses with Prof. Martin Dominguez Ball, who encouraged her to pursue art conservation, a field that combines the two interests.

“Graphic design takes time but doesn’t ever feel like work,” she said. “In chemistry, there’s one right answer, but graphic design offers so many different approaches. The balance between the two fields helps me use all the different parts of my brain.”