Nicole McMillan

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Undergraduate Researcher, University of Notre Dame


Was there a particular person or event that influenced your career choice? My mentors in the lab really influenced my research and my undergraduate career, but at one point I realized that I had become a mentor to other undergraduate students. There is a younger girl in the lab who told me that she thought I was really smart and that she looked up to me. That really meant a lot to me and motivated me to work hard because I knew that younger undergraduate students were looking at me as a role model.

ocat4What is a typical day like at your job? During a typical day I fabricate and test devices. The devices that I make are microfluidic chips made out of a polymer that contains an anion exchange membrane. The devices are used to test for the presence of a particular disease in a sample through the use of a complementary single stranded DNA probe. Depending on the type of polymer I use to make the device, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to make one device. Once the device is fabricated I use an electric current to apply a voltage to the chip. Changes in the current-voltage curve signify the presence of a disease. I typically spend one day testing a single chip because I also want to test the sensitivity of the device. The goal is to be able to take this chip in a handheld device to a third-world country where we can perform rapid, inexpensive testing of water and food for known harmful diseases such as E. Coli or Dengue virus.

What qualities or skills are important for this career? In any area of research, it is important to not fear failure. Most of the experiments I ran failed. Something would always go wrong, but when I finally had a few experiments that worked, everything was worth it. Research takes a lot of dedication and patience, but it is important to never give up. You need to be passionate about what you are doing because you may spend hours working on something and it might not work. I think it is important to be able to see the big picture because that is what kept me going at times. I knew that even though I was only making a small contribution, my work could potentially help someone someday.

What career did you imagine yourself in as a young girl? As a young girl, I always imagined I would become a marine biologist. I came to the University of Notre Dame as a biology major. When I was younger I would always help my dad fix things around the house. After going away to school I missed doing those projects with my dad. I soon realized that I wanted to do something more hands-on like engineering, and since I liked chemistry, physics and math I decided that chemical engineering would be the perfect fit.

Coffee shop drink of choice? White Chocolate Mocha. Always. My favorite place is a west-coast chain called Dutch Bros.

Who are YOUR role models? My biggest role models are my dad and my older sister. My dad showed me not to be afraid of power tools, and my sister showed me not be afraid of pursuing a science related degree. I have plenty of other roles models, but those two have been the most influential throughout my life.

Read more about her career! Chemical Engineer, Researcher

Bio: Nicole graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. During her time there, she worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics department. She found that the material she learned while studying for her degree complemented the work she was doing as a researcher. She usually works in a laboratory, although if she is analyzing data or doing something else that doesn’t require lab work, she sometimes works in an office. In the lab, close-toed shoes, pants, safety goggles, and a lab coat are required, as well as a hairnet and booties if she is going into the clean room. In her work, she interacts with research professors, postdoctoral students, graduate students, as well as fellow undergraduate students. According to Nicole, “They definitely make working for hours on end in the laboratory more fun. Everyone is working on a different project so when I have some downtime I take the opportunity to learn about what the others are doing. I always want to be learning. Outside of work, the people in the lab will have dinner together or play games outside when the weather is nice. I have had the privilege of gaining some incredible mentors at work. They help me with my career and personal life decisions. It is very helpful working in an environment with people who care about you and your future career.”

In her free time, Nicole enjoys playing soccer and being outdoors. She loves going around on her mountain bike or in running shoes, and wants to train for a marathon someday. She also enjoys playing the flute, which has given her great opportunities through her college marching band. Now that she has graduated from college, Nicole will be starting work at a healthcare software company. She always wants to be intellectually challenged and hopes to continue her career in a STEM-related field.