Sophomore seamlessly synthesizes success from research, theater, jewelry design, and 'mascot security'

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

In a seminal essay, “The Two Cultures,” written more than a half-century ago, the author C.P. Snow lamented the divide between the arts and the sciences.

He would have been proud to meet Erica Cole.

The University of Iowa sophomore is a chemistry major who became a published author in a scientific journal after unraveling a crystal structure that no one else in faculty member Tori Forbes’s lab could solve. She’s a theatre arts minor who designs period costumes and takes a jewelry-making class. And, she’s one of a chosen few who are involved with Herky Security, the spirit squad members who work with the UI mascot, Herky.

“She’s just very well-rounded,” says Forbes, an assistant professor in chemistry who brought Cole into her lab as a freshman. “She epitomizes the kind of liberal arts student we want at Iowa.”

Cole, who is from Cedar Rapids, began working in Forbes’s lab in January 2015 after hearing Forbes talk about her research into radioactive materials like uranium.

“She was so enthusiastic about (her work),” Cole recalls. “I was intensely interested from the beginning of her lecture to the end, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to learn more about this.’”

That summer, Forbes presented Cole with a problem. A recently departed post-doctoral scholar had created new crystal structures but left incomplete instructions for how he formed them. Others had tried to recreate the crystals to no avail. The team was frustrated.

“We had been sitting on this (experiment) a while,” says Forbes, adding the team couldn’t publish the findings until it showed exactly how the crystals were created. “I said, ‘No one else can handle this, so I’ll give it to Erica.’”

Erica Cole


Major: Chemistry

Minor: Theatre Arts

Hometown: Cedar Rapids (graduated from Cedar Rapids' Washington High)

Fun Facts: Only child; both parents graduated from Iowa State University; is a member of Iowa Spirit Squads

Painstakingly, through trial and (much) error, Cole figured out the missing ingredients and the right doses of acid and base to recreate the crystals. The reward: She became the first author on a manuscript published in the peer-reviewed journal Polyhedron.

Not to mention serious credibility with her peers in the lab.

“All of my graduate students want to work with her,” Forbes says with a laugh. “They know she’ll do excellent work, and they trust her.”

Cole enjoys the challenge of exploring and manipulating chemical structures. In a recent talk at an undergraduate-research pitch competition, she spoke excitedly about a new metallo-organic compound created to store hydrogen, likening the structure to a multi-level parking garage with reinforced pillars.

“It’s definitely a puzzle,” she says, “and there’s a moment when you’re the only one who’s seen this structure, and it’s exciting.”

Cole will continue working on crystal structures through a summer internship with Peter Burns, a chemist and director of the Materials Science of Actinides, (MSA), a U.S. Department of Energy–funded center located at the University of Notre Dame.

Outside the lab, Cole indulges her artistic bent with her theater arts studies, by taking a jewelry-making class in Studio Arts, and by designing 1930s-era costumes for a fan-created video game involving real actors called The 13th Doll.

Cole did a lot of acting during high school, but she didn’t think about joining Herky’s team until a roommate broached the idea.

Cole initially shrugged it off, then considered the challenge of stretching herself and stepping out of her comfort zone.

“People can look at something and say, ‘That’d be cool, but that’s not me,’” Cole says. “And I thought, there are some 30,000 students at this university, and only a few get to be part of Herky Security. Why can’t it be me?”

After two auditions, Cole was a member of Herky Security. Her coach, Gregg Niemiec, has been impressed with Cole's involvement, mentioning specifically her idea and sewing of three different Halloween costumes for Herky.

“She’s an amazingly creative person,” says Niemiec, spirit coordinator and head cheerleading coach at the UI.

Cole says the experience with Herky Security has been rewarding on many levels, from accompanying the football team to the Rose Bowl in December to visiting sick children at hospitals.

“Everywhere you go, you make people happy,” she says.

Now, Cole wants to spread her passion for chemistry to the masses as well, using the communication skills she's picking up. 

“Every time I mention I’m a chemistry major, I get, ‘Ugh, you’re a chemistry major. I’m sorry,’” Cole says. “I want to make it interesting and exciting.”