Perhaps it's a long shot, but the key to calming the digestive nightmare that thwarts 3 million Americans with gluten intolerance from indulging in cakes, cereals and couscous could be 21-year-old Stephanie Gates.
The Arlington Heights native will take to the Millikin University laboratory and dedicate much of her upcoming senior year studying the precarious protein, looking to prevent the cascade of events that takes place when someone with celiac disease ingests it.
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Stephanie GatesAge: 21
Hometown: Arlington Heights
School: Millikin University
Who inspires you? My mom and many teachers and professors over the years.
What book are you reading? "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin.
What's on your iPod? Quite a variety, but my two most listened to artists are OneRepublic and Lifehouse.
The three words that best describe you? Passionate. Goal-oriented. Dedicated.
It's the kind of work that landed Stephanie one of just 29 spots nationwide in this year's Society of Chemical Industry Scholars program, a highly selective and prestigious initiative aimed at introducing chemistry and chemical engineering students to chemical industry careers.
"This is a huge deal," Millikin Chemistry Department Chairman George Bennett said. "I knew she was our most qualified applicant, but I thought the large research universities would dominate the selections."
Stephanie thought the same thing, and nearly didn't apply.
She figured a junior from Millikin -- with its rural 75-acre campus in downstate Decatur and modest student body of 40 graduate students and 2,300 undergrads -- wouldn't stand a chance against applicants from the Ivy League and research institutions.
But thanks in part to Bennett's encouragement, Stephanie made the cut as Illinois' lone representative, as well the one hailing from by far the smallest school.
"I thought it was kind of a long shot when I applied since it's supposed to be really prestigious and it seemed like I was an underdog," Stephanie said. "I was extremely surprised, to say the least."
Now, the Buffalo Grove High School grad is spending her summer in Spartanburg, S.C., interning for 10 weeks at textile and chemical manufacturer Milliken and Co. (the name is just a coincidence).
The biology and chemistry double major is working with polypropylene, attempting to make it "acid wettable" in a way that could potentially result in lead acid batteries being cheaper and more stable.
Last summer, she had a six-week internship at Tunghai University in Taiwan as part of an exchange program, where she was introduced to cancer research.
And back at Millikin-with-an-I, Stephanie will continue her ongoing research project, synthesizing chains of amino acids known as peptides and examining their relationship with gluten metabolism and people with celiac disease.
"That's part of the draw I have to pharmaceutical research, knowing you're having a direct impact on someone's quality of life," Stephanie said of her plans, in which she'll pursue a doctorate in either biochemistry or organic chemistry. "I also find (chemical) industry jobs interesting, but with them it's more about the good of the company."
There wasn't a specific catalyst behind Stephanie's passion for chemistry so much as a childhood brimming with learning opportunities.
Patty Gates, who is back to working in IT after years as a stay-at-home mom, said all four of her children are extremely inquisitive, intelligent people. To keep herself interested, she kept a "curiosity board" on the refrigerator and researched and crafted experiments based on what Stephanie and her siblings wanted to learn.
She treated cooking and baking as chances to learn about measurements, particles and emulsions. When one child asked to learn about butterflies, she bought a kit in which you capture, tag and track monarchs as they migrate south.
"Google wasn't around, so we went to the library," Patty said. "We're a bunch of nerds in this house, and their questions got me curious and stopped me from ever getting bored."
Stephanie, Patty said, is the complete package.
She was on her high school poms and water polo teams and student council. She's taken multiple mission trips around the country, and even found a quirky outlet for her writing talent, penning skits to perform on her church's Christian puppet team.
"She's always been a sponge who absorbs everything, not to mention very goal-oriented and persistent," Patty said.
Stephanie feels fortunate that she's found a career in science, and she wants others -- especially young girls -- to consider following suit.
Through her school's American Chemical Society chapter, Stephanie and other classmates put on science demonstrations and experiments for elementary students as part of the Millikin Decatur Science Investigations project.
Just like the Mad Science folks did at Riley Elementary School in Arlington Heights, she pulls out the liquid nitrogen, potassium iodide, hydrogen and peroxide, making for some impressive reactions.
"I really enjoy enriching kids and getting them enthusiastic about science," Stephanie said. "A lot of people had negative experiences growing up, but more people growing an interest in math and science is what we need for our country's future."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org.