Birla Carbon Scholar pursues her passion

KENNESAW, Ga. | Jun 19, 2019

KSU alum takes wealth of experiences to graduate school

Long before Reagan Hooper had even heard of Kennesaw State, she was setting the stage to launch her career in chemistry.

“I had a great chemistry teacher in high school, and I really got into that class,” said Hooper, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from KSU in 2018. “Chemistry is awesome!”

Hooper, a first-generation Zell Miller Scholarship recipient from Blairsville, had her pick of any University System of Georgia institution, but she chose KSU after visiting the chemistry department and meeting with several professors. She is now a graduate student in chemistry at Yale University with plans to eventually become a professor.

Reagan Hooper

As an undergraduate student at KSU, Hooper’s impressive ability in the chemistry lab led to her selection as a Birla Carbon Scholar. The Kennesaw State scholarship program currently provides 11 students with a $4,000 stipend for summer research in science and mathematics. Each student works side-by-side with faculty researchers on projects dealing with topics from soil contamination to the evolution of appendages.

“I really loved my time at KSU and, especially, getting to work with chemistry professors Dr. Daniela Tapu and Dr. Martina Kaledin,” she said.

“I worked with Dr. Tapu during my Birla Carbon scholarship summer, and it helped me form a great relationship with her,” said Hooper, whose research involved synthesizing organic molecules called N-heterocyclic carbenes. “I know that Dr. Tapu will be a good mentor throughout my academic career.” 

Hooper said the Birla Carbon scholarship allowed her to pursue full-time research, solidifying her goal to go to graduate school.

“It pushed me to work harder, and, obviously, that looked good for my resume and for my hopes of getting into Yale,” she said. “My research also resulted in an academic publication for me in the journal Chemical Communications, and that was exciting.”

The Birla Carbon experience at KSU helped Hooper win admission to Yale, where she is a member of Yale’s Holland Group laboratory. The group’s research could one day lead to the development of a new way to produce nitrogen-based fertilizer by understanding how nature transforms nitrogen.

“We study the conversion of nitrogen in our atmosphere to ammonia that occurs in some types of little bacteria that live in the ground,” said Hooper, who works in professor Pat Holland’s lab at Yale.

Hooper explained these bacteria have an enzyme called nitrogenase, inside of which is an iron site where the nitrogen likely binds and is converted to ammonia.

“We are studying nitrogenase from an inorganic chemist’s point of view. If we could find a way to do this conversion without relying on the bacteria, we could increase the production of ammonia without harming the environment,” she explained. “This is important because ammonia is a vital building block for a lot of fertilizers that helps us grow the food that we need to support the growing population of the world.”

Hooper said despite all her hard work and scholarships, she couldn’t have accomplished anything without her family’s support.

“I was raised in the mountains of North Georgia, where my mom is a hairdresser and my dad is a retired correctional officer,” Hooper said. “And even though they didn’t really understand my interest in science growing up, they always supported me. They bought me dinosaur figures and space books and gave me a microscope when I asked for one in the fifth grade.”

“I would like to think my parents are proud of what I’ve done,” she said. “They have sacrificed a lot to help me further my education. I still call my mom every night and give her a little overview of my day.”

– Robert S. Godlewski

Photos courtesy of Yale University

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit