Take a look at the accomplishments and aspirations of just a few of our outstanding seniors
Committed Faculty Help Zhang Forge Her Own Path
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— Looking back over her time at Illinois Wesleyan, Ruomeng Zhang
’16 smiles broadly, closes her eyes and shakes her head.
“I was afraid of everything,” she recalled. “Afraid to speak in class, anxious about
my future, afraid of making a mistake.”
A native of Zhangshu, a small city in China’s Jiangxi province, Zhang ’16 wanted to
attend college in the United States even though she had never traveled abroad before
coming to Illinois Wesleyan. She reasoned that a U.S. college would provide a great
opportunity to make friends with American students, improve her English language skills,
and immerse herself in American culture.
Zhang chose IWU based on her impressions of the University’s teaching philosophy and
campus environment. Almost immediately upon arrival, she discovered she was right:
professors and students develop strong bonds at IWU, and those relationships were
critical for Zhang’s success.
Initially declaring a major in chemistry, Zhang said Professor and Chair of Chemistry Rebecca Roesner offered “tremendous support and encouragement” as Zhang struggled
with English, cultural differences, and IWU’s academic rigor. For financial reasons,
she was determined to finish her coursework in three years rather than four, adding
to her stress. “I was very anxious about my future,” Zhang said, recalling a difficult
Then, after taking an introductory physics course, Professor Gabe Spalding encouraged her to add a physics major or minor. “He
told me I had talent and strongly encouraged me to study physics,” she said. However,
her decision to finish her coursework in three years made a double major impossible,
so physics and chemistry faculty assisted her in developing an interdisciplinary degree
in chemical physics.
“I like to seek connections between different subjects,” Zhang said. “And my experiences
in the interdisciplinary fields gave me a broad view of looking at things from different
She found ways to make connections outside of the classroom as well. By the end of
her first year, she’d founded Cross-Cultural Connections, a registered student organization
seeking to bridge the gap between domestic and international students, with the help
of tips and suggestions from Outreach Librarian and Professor Sue Anderson. “She was
always concerned with my progress both in English and in my schoolwork,” said Zhang
of Anderson. And Zhang was often asked to perform on the pipa, a traditional Chinese
stringed instrument, on occasions ranging from private dinners at the University President’s
home to the Lunar New Year festival on campus.
Zhang excelled in combining her love for chemistry and physics in research. She joined
Professor of Physics Narendra Jaggi’s lab to study the physics behind two well known
oscillating chemical reactions: Briggs-Rauscher (BR) and Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ).
“These two reactions are characterized by cyclic color changes. Even though the chemistry
and physics of the reactions have been studied for over half a century, they are not
completely understood,” Zhang said. She and her lab partners designed techniques in
hopes of developing a better understanding of these systems. “When I was doing research
with Dr. Jaggi, he guided me in learning how to think like a real physicist and how
to push our project forward,” she said. Zhang’s work on diffusion coupled chemical
oscillators won second place at the Illinois Section American Association of Physics
Teachers Student Research Symposium in 2015.
Zhang also took part in an undergraduate research program at Princeton University
last summer. In the lab of Greg Scholes, a leader in the field of energy transfer,
Zhang investigated ways to substitute semiconductors used to make solar cells with
organic compounds that can undergo singlet fission.
“I had a taste of what research would be like in graduate school and also became familiar
with the academic environment at Princeton,” she said. Still, she struggled in deciding
whether to take a gap year or start graduate work this fall. Exhaustion was one factor,
but Zhang said the biggest reason she considered a gap year was because of her deep
interest in so many things.
And Zhang seems to have talent in many areas. An English professor who loved Zhang’s
short story on a post-apocalyptic world urged her to submit it for publication. Her
drawings have won awards. And, as a student in Professor of Sociology Chuck Springwood’s
course “Race, Racism & Anthropology,” Zhang gained an entirely new perspective of
American society. Springwood encouraged her to write a reflection of this perception
for possible publication.
“I deeply feel that arts and sciences cannot be separated, and I like both,” Zhang
said. “All of the experiences with faculty from across the campus made me think I
should take a gap year to travel and interact with people from different backgrounds.”
In the end, however, after hours of conversation — with Spalding and Jaggi, in particular,
discussing her truest passions and her strongest skills — she decided to enter the
doctoral program in chemistry at Princeton this fall.
No wonder, then, that Roesner describes Zhang as “exceptional in doing all this and
graduating in three years.” Elected to both Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi national
honor societies, Zhang graduated summa cum laude with research honors.
No longer terrified to speak in class, Zhang said she is now confident of her abilities,
a change she partly credits to the many close relationships she developed with faculty
and peers at Illinois Wesleyan. And she has some advice for other students:
“By the time you graduate, I hope you can say proudly to yourself: ‘I played hard,
I worked hard, and I lived fully at IWU.’ I can say this today about myself.”