Photograph by Jamie Betts

In the spring of 2019, chemistry professor Miles Johnson, ’09, and his student Adrian Matthews, ’20, gained something — besides in-depth knowledge of catalysis — in common with each other: Both are now recipients of the Goldwater, the nation’s preeminent undergraduate award in science and math. Johnson was a UR Goldwater Scholar in 2007; Matthews was one of three UR recipients this spring.

Matthews ended up a chemistry major almost by happenstance. A first-year course called Integrated Quantitative Science exposed her to a range of sciences, and she finished it thinking her strengths lay in chemistry. She ended up as a researcher in Johnson’s lab also by happenstance — another professor sent her Johnson’s way.

Johnson had his own unusual path back to UR. He originally came to Richmond from Akron, Ohio, for his undergraduate years and then went on to the doctoral program at University of California, Berkeley. A rare confluence drew him back to Gottwald. Just as Johnson hit the job market, his UR mentor retired, so Richmond had a rare opening that just happened to be Johnson’s specialty.

Johnson, an assistant professor, explains the outcome with a scientist’s dry ease: “All these variables seem unlikely.”

As a Spider alumnus and a Goldwater recipient, Johnson is in a unique position for mentoring students who come through his lab. All of his colleagues were once college students, but Johnson knows what it’s like to go to college at Richmond.

“I understand the challenges of being a chemistry major here,” he said. “Undergraduate chemistry is different from place to place.”

In Matthews, he knew he had an exceptional student when she kept telling him she needed more work to help fill the downtime that’s inevitable with research.

“Talking to her is like talking to an advanced graduate student,” he said. “She’s thinking continually about what she wants to do and contextualizing it within her career goals.”

True to form, Matthews spent the summer of 2019 at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., focusing on materials science. “I like to keep busy,” she said.

As a former Goldwater Scholar, Johnson can appreciate the boost the award gives to Matthews as she thinks about the next steps in her career.

For him, he said, it was “reassurance that what I love doing is also what I’m good at. It also helps bring down barriers.”