Uhrich, Kathryn

Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences
Areas of Interest: 
Creation of biodegradable polymers (e.g., PolyAspirin) for biomedical applications, organic and polymer synthesis of biologically relevant materials.
My Story: 
Uhrich, Kathryn E.
Kathryn (right) examines food-based polymer created by grad student Ashley Carbone (left), with Michelle Johnson (center), 2007.
As far back as I can remember, I was curious about things. My mom would worry about me when I’d slowly peel and closely analyze oranges – the way that the oils burst from the peel intrigued me, so I searched to find the origin. The exploration included pricking the peel with a sewing needle vs. pinching with my fingernails. Mom often scolded me for analyzing my dinner (how does the muscle attach to the chicken bone?) My dad enabled my curiosity by allowing me to drive the car – after I’d learned basic car maintenance such as to change a tire, the oil, and the oil filter myself. Dad also saw no reason why his daughters shouldn’t clean their own fish or pheasants after family fishing/hunting expeditions just as his sons should.

The first step on my career path was with my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Murdoch, informed my class about a summer research opportunity in a biochemistry lab. Grand Forks Central High School is located in North Dakota, which is also home to the University of North Dakota (UND) (where I eventually majored in chemistry and the Human Nutrition Research Center (where I applied for the summer research position). I still remember going to my interview at the Nut Lab (as the Human Nutrition Research Center was lovingly nicknamed) as a 16-year old student – wearing my best debate clothes, and learning that a summer of research paid more than a summer of baby-sitting. My decision to apply for that research position was as much based upon economics as on the opportunity to learn.

My summer experience at the Nut Lab earned me my senior yearbook nickname (“Rat Killer”) and opened my eyes. Until the Nut Lab, I didn’t realize that my curiosity could be put to use. I loved that asking questions often led to more questions, (“if rats are given higher doses of cysteine in their diet, do they better adsorb iron?”) I learned that “presenting a hypothesis” was the same as asking questions. My summer mentor, Dr. Forrest, “Frosty”, Nielson, encouraged me to return the following summer – after graduating from high school; I did. He also encouraged me to apply to college. Without Frosty’s encouragement, I’m not sure if I would’ve continued onto college or into science. To my recollection, I had no career aspirations until that summer experience.

With Frosty’s encouragement, I applied to several local universities. Ultimately, I chose UND because I could afford the tuition by working as a research technician at the Nut Lab. My responsibilities were to mix the feed for rats and chickens, monitor their weights and health, assist in their sacrifice and organ procurement, and analyze data. Because of this experience, I chose chemistry as a major. After two years, the Nut Lab no longer had funds for part-time employees so I was forced to find other work. I interviewed as a technician for the Energy Research Center (ERC), also in Grand Forks, and was fortunate to obtain a position with Dr. Jim Worman evaluating the formation of hydantoins in the wastewater of the ERC’s coal gasification plant. Jim believed that I was particularly adept at organic synthesis and analysis, so he recommended me for a summer research position with Prof. Marv Miller at the University of Notre Dame following my junior year in college.

Spending a summer in South Bend, IN, was exciting for me. Not only did I get the opportunity to improve my synthetic skills on spermidine-like molecules, I had the opportunity to experience life outside the Dakotas. My life was defined by long days in the lab, weekend visits to Chicago, dating football players, hanging with the Spastic Frogs (South Bend girl band) and Touchdown Jesus. At the end of my summer, Marv spoke with me about graduate school. At his urging, I composed a list of 50+ schools that I thought would be interesting based upon geographic location; then, we narrowed the list to those with good organic chemistry faculty. I returned to UND that fall for my last semester with a fresh view of the world and now determined to get into a good graduate school. The following January, after my graduation, I returned to Marv’s lab where I continued to build my lab skills and professional career. After significant deliberation, I’d narrowed my grad school choices to UC Berkeley, UWisconsin-Madison, and Cornell. Cornell was my final choice (mostly) because of its beautiful setting and novelty as a private institution.

Uhrich, Kathryn E.
Kathryn during her graduate work at Cornell, 1991.

Cornell remains the most challenging time of my life. Challenging because I was far away from home. Challenging because everyone was intelligent and most were from Ivy League schools. Challenging because life happens. In my first two years at Cornell, it was hard to focus: my folks divorced, my dad’s manic/depressive behavior meant that the police and/or hospitals became intimately involved with the Uhrich household, my mom declared bankruptcy and had to sell the house, my brother Gil was involved in a life-threatening car accident, my sister was having marriage difficulties, and my baby brother Corey was dealing with drug addiction. Between these life-influencing events and feeling stranded in Ithaca, because I was sending much of my (limited) salary back home, I finished my classwork in a daze. It took several years for me to appreciate the opportunities that my graduate advisor, Prof. Jean Frechet, provided for me.
Although Cornell was the greatest challenge of my life, it was also where I re-met the love-of-my-life, Jeff Holmes. Jeff was in the architecture program at Cornell; the architecture building (Rand Hall) is conveniently located across the street from the chemistry building (Olin Hall). Now for the “it’s a small world” story – Jeff and I both graduated from Central High School in 1983, were co-valedictorians and no, we didn’t date in high school. ‘We competed’ is a good descriptor for our relationship in high school. Jeff was smart, a ‘hockey jock’ and dated a cute blond hockey cheerleader. I was smart and a debate geek; our worlds did not overlap outside the classroom. Nonetheless, we instantly fell in love when we re-met at Cornell. And after 18 years together, we married on a remote beach on Kauai.

After Cornell, I worked for a woman for the first time – Dr. Elsa Reichmanis at AT&T Bell Labs. Elsa embodies intelligence, leadership, empathy, loyalty and life balance. She gave me the confidence to pursue my increased curiosity in biomedicine, even though it meant leaving the incredible environment of Bell Labs. After one year, I left to work with Prof. Bob Langer at MIT. Bob’s lab was a fabulous opportunity for me to learn first-hand about biomaterials, writing grants, reviewing papers and mentoring students. Admittedly, I was scared to leave my successful path at Bell Labs, but I quickly realized that the move into academia was exactly right for me. Bob taught me that everyone contributes something and even brilliant, highly successful scientists can take the time to play softball with their research group.

What in my background influenced me? My economically disadvantaged background emboldened me to succeed. Once I learned that higher education meant not having to worry about food, clothing and shelter, I became very focused on getting my degrees. My Dakotan roots instilled a deep work ethic – you only get what you earn/work for. My gender reminds me that female scientists particularly garner attention – like it or not. My siblings, grandmas and parents loved and supported me, even though I was different. This unconditional love gave me the courage to get through the difficult times of becoming a Professor of Chemistry, the best “job” in the world.