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Not-So-Weird Science

Written by Mike Berlin '08
2/18/2009

Matthew Sprague in his final year at IC

Matthew Sprague ’05 knew exactly what we wanted out of a college. With an avid interest in chemistry and a passion for music, he immediately connected with Ithaca College’s small university feel and esteemed music school.

“My interest in research really developed at IC,” says Sprague, remembering what initially drew him to IC. “Before I arrived, I knew that I wanted to study science, but I didn't know what career I wanted to go into.”

"Making the most of the college experience" is something most students hear as cliché. Sprague embodied this advice and has a lot to say about it.

“I think Ithaca’s a phenomenal place because my first year I got to meet so many people,” Sprague pauses. “I really got to know all the professors and my class sizes were small.”

The memories are still pretty fresh in his mind; he graduated only four years ago with a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in physics. As a student of many sciences, a good chunk of Sprague’s coursework comprised of research and independent study.

During his freshman year, he immediately approached his professors in the chemistry department to get involved. Sprague’s adviser, retired professor Glenn Vogel, encouraged him to pursue a summer internship at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, where he was eventually able to study polyurethane foams under IC alumnus LeRoy Whinnery ’85.

“Glenn recommended me for my internship at Sandia, and that experience showed me that research was fun,” says Sprague. “I enjoyed studying problems with unknown answers, and playing around with high-tech equipment.” The internship turned out to be extremely beneficial and led to another two summers spent on the West Coast with Sandia.

Sprague says that his professors encouraged him and his classmates to perform research, and he estimates that he was involved in two or three studies every semester at IC. During his undergrad years at Ithaca he worked with many professors, including Mike Haaf, studying synthetic chemistry; Anna Larsen, studying inorganic chemistry education; and Vincent DeTuri, studying computational chemistry.

These experiences also opened a few doors in the chemistry world for Sprague. And at the end of his sophomore year, he was awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, given nationally to a small number of natural science, mathematics, and engineering students. Sprague believes that his research with Sandia and IC was a key factor in the award.

After graduation, Sprague enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, one of the top science universities in the U.S., and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in chemistry. “We are studying reactions of atmospheric interest by measuring chemical kinetics in the laboratory,” he says. “The reactions that we study contribute to air pollution, and our results are of great interest to the atmospheric science community."

Sprague returned to Ithaca to present a lecture to current chemistry students about his research entitled, “Measuring Kinetics of Atmospherically Relevant Reactions Using Cavity Ringdown Spectroscopy."

“My goal was to show the seniors that everything they had learned from chemistry is directly applicable to what I do in the lab,” he says. “The lab skills that I picked up at Ithaca have been vital to my success at Caltech.”

Sprague also remembers his own classroom research in this context. “Lab classes were designed to ensure that we developed a working knowledge of what a chemical instrument could do, and how to use it,” he says. “Now that I am working with lasers and building my own equipment in the lab, I really appreciate that Ithaca made sure that we understood how the instruments worked.”

For Sprague, this kind of approach to education is the best, and he hopes to teach at a small liberal arts college after getting his Ph.D.

 



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