About Nolan - Class of 2014
From: Orange City, Iowa
High School: MOC-Floyd Valley
Academic Interests: Chemistry, Physics
Extracurricular Interests: Football
Georgia Tech. Wisconsin. Minnesota.
As Central College senior Nolan Blythe of Orange City weighs his graduate school options, he’s feeling a bit like a five-star football recruit. But Blythe, a wide receiver on the Central football squad, is looking to accomplish something more significant than run a fade route to the end zone. He’s seeking a Ph.D. degree in chemistry with the ultimate goal of using the degree to make a difference in the lives of others. And it’s his lofty 3.96 grade point average and research experience that has captured the attention of elite graduate school programs, not his 40-yard dash time.
He’s already been accepted to the three aforementioned highly regarded universities. And with acceptances comes more than an opportunity for study. There will be offers for fellowships, tuition waivers and cash stipends.
“He has already been accepted to a top-10 graduate school with an offer for a fellowship,” says Central assistant professor of chemistry Jay Wackerly, who advised Blythe on a senior honors research project last summer. “He’s a guy who is going to have his choice.” In the end, Blythe chose to accept an offer of admission from University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Blythe hasn’t yet received his chemistry degree from Central, and it’s already paying off.
“The fact that I’ve got a liberal arts education is something the grad schools like,” Blythe says.
But the undergraduate research experience Central has provided is a big advantage as well. Through a grant Wackerly received, Blythe was even able to spend last summer on campus in a full-time paid position assisting with Wackerly’s research project. That’s in addition to the four semesters of research Blythe has taken on for the project, the results of which should soon be submitted for publication in a chemistry journal, Wackerly says.
“It’s one thing learning about reactions on paper in class,” Blythe says. “But to do it in a lab setting is exciting. It’s kind of cool to do something that’s never been done.”
Blythe’s work with Wackerly included synthesizing, purifying, and analyzing compounds. The research is part of his senior honors thesis, "Synthesis of oxaquinonacyclophanes from 2,3-dichloronaphthoquinone."
“If I’d gone to a bigger school I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work independently,” he says. “I probably would have worked with a graduate school student washing dishes or something. At Central, I was able to do my own synthesis. I like that.”
Opportunities for individual student research abound at Central. And while Blythe’s project proved successful, Wackerly notes that there’s value in students’ research, regardless of the results.
“Every reaction gives us a new piece of information,” he says. “The students are attempting things that no one has tried before. Each reaction we run in the lab pushes the boundaries of science a little farther.”
Blythe’s attractiveness to graduate schools is also enhanced by Central’s coveted accreditation by the American Chemical Society (ACS), Wackerly says. Central is one of only seven private colleges or universities in Iowa with an ACS-approved program. The facilities in the college’s $20 million Vermeer Science Center are a learning advantage as well. Students have access to various kinds of analytical instrumentation including a 300 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which identifies the types of atoms in a molecule.
“That is about a quarter-of-a-million-dollar instrument and students get to use it by themselves,” Wackerly says. “They don’t just hand off their samples to a graduate assistant.”
Facilities and opportunities aside, when asked what separates Central from other schools, Blythe puts the chemistry department faculty near the top of his list.
“I like how helpful the professors are,” he says. “I feel like I could go to all the professors in the department and they’d be perfectly willing to help me out. You couldn’t have better faculty.”
Wackerly and the other chemistry faculty members offer student researchers freedom, as well as guidance, Blythe says.
“I like how Dr. Wackerly gives me the opportunity to struggle with problems myself,” he says. “He’s always there if I need to ask a question and is very helpful. But he’s not always in the lab looking over my shoulder. He gives me just enough guidance to keep me on track.”
The faculty was a clear selling point when Blythe was making his college choice. Of course, Central was always on his radar—his father, Jeff, was an all-America defensive end for the Dutch football team, graduating in 1987 before becoming a veterinarian and establishing a clinic in Orange City. Older sister Paige is a 2012 Central graduate, and younger brother Clayton is a Central freshman. Nolan looked at other schools, but was quickly convinced Dad’s choice was the right fit for him as well.
“Everyone was so considerate and so interested in me,” he says. “They all wanted me to have the best possible experience. The coaches and faculty were interested in me as a person. Central just seemed a little bit different than the other schools.”
And playing college football without sacrificing his academic dreams appealed to him as well. The combination works nicely at Central.
“My grades are always better during football season,” says Blythe, although with a 3.96 GPA he admittedly has little experience with grades that aren’t near-perfect. “I’m more focused and I have to manage my time well.”
One of Blythe’s biggest challenges was simply deciding which career path to tread after graduation. There are so many intriguing options.
“Nolan is very open-minded,” Wackerly says. “Intellectually, he likes exploring several different things.”
But the research work with Wackerly finally led Blythe to go after the doctoral degree in organic chemistry.
“Before that, I wasn’t thinking it was something I wanted to do,” he says.
His career direction beyond that is still coming into focus.
“I like the idea of contributing to improving science and technology, and executing research that can help society,” Blythe says.
That can happen in a number of ways.
“I might work in industry in renewable energy or pharmaceuticals,” he says.” I’m also considering an academic position.”
But first he needed to choose a graduate school, a process that involved several campus visits. Blythe headed into it with excitement--and a bit of apprehension. But all the hard work paid off in the end.
“I’m a little nervous about the idea of graduate school,” Blythe admits. “But I know that Central has prepared me well. I have the skills I’ll need to be successful.”