Changing course: Justin Weatherford-Pratt earns chemistry degree, plans to pursue PhD

Justin Weatherford-Pratt

Justin Weatherford-Pratt transferred to UMSL after deciding to switch majors from sociology to chemistry. He’ll pursue a PhD at the University of Virginia after finishing his degree earlier this month. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Justin Weatherford-Pratt can’t say what he’d be doing now had he followed through on his early plans to major in sociology.

He sat there stumped on the second floor of the Millennium Student Center recently as he considered it.

“What can you do with a sociology degree?” he finally asked.

There are actually quite a few careers where such a degree would prove useful – social worker, probation officer, charity fundraiser, human resources officer and life coach, among them. But Weatherford-Pratt never got far enough down that path to investigate any of them.

An experience in a chemistry course he took to meet a science requirement his freshman year at Lindenwood University led him to change majors, transfer schools and eventually earn a BS in chemistry from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. With commencement behind him, Weatherford-Pratt will soon be moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, to begin pursuing a PhD in chemistry from the University of Virginia.

“I took a concepts of chemistry course, and I didn’t do well in it, but I really enjoyed learning chemistry,” he said, trying to explain the abrupt change of course in his academic career. “I think it was easier to see the fruits of my labor studying that material.

“I think if you put time and effort into something, it’s rewarding when you get that aha moment.”

That’s what happened for Weatherford-Pratt.

He wasn’t expecting it. He enrolled in the chemistry class because, unlike the introductory biology course for non-majors, it still had space available. Of course, he hadn’t been eager to take biology again either after struggling with it as a high school student in Belleville, Illinois.

But something about chemistry just made more sense to him.

He remembers clearly his aha moment.

It happened in a lab his freshman year while doing a quantitative and qualitative analysis of a mixture of ammonium chloride, sand and table salt. Specifically, he was tasked with determining how much of each his sample included.

He started by figuring out the overall mass, heated the sample to remove the ammonium chloride, then reweighed it to determine how much mass had been lost with its release.

Next he added water to the sample to dissolve the salt and filtered it. He heated the filtrate to remove the water and weighed the salt left behind.

“I think it was really just being in the lab that was that moment where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Weatherford-Pratt said.

That’s when he decided to switch majors, and soon after, he began exploring transfer options.

It didn’t take him long to settle on UMSL.

“There were more research opportunities here, the tuition’s obviously cheaper and I’d just heard good things about UMSL,” he said.

Weatherford-Pratt has never regretted his decision.

He quickly found the research opportunities he was looking for, first working in Professor Alicia Beatty’s lab in the summer of 2016 as he tried to build a cobalt cluster, a medal-organic framework.

More recently, Weatherford-Pratt’s done research with Associate Professor Janet Wilking, who described him as “a bright, motivated and hard-working student.”

This semester, they were doing research on the synthesis and characterization of luminescent silicon and germanium containing ring compounds that exhibit fluorescence. Wilking said they’ve been investigating the molecules for biological applications such as interactions with DNA and anti-microbial properties.

He has been recognized throughout his time at UMSL for his work, winning the Award for Outstanding Performance in Sophomore Chemistry in 2016 and another for Outstanding Junior Chemistry Student from the St. Louis Section of the American Chemical Society in 2017. This year, he added the Alan F. Berndt Outstanding Senior Award.

Weatherford-Pratt knew pretty quickly after starting at UMSL that a bachelor’s degree would not be the end of his chemistry training. He had a goal to pursue a PhD.

“I want to be part of the academic society,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know if I want to go into industry. I like academia.

“I think it’s because of the way I learn, how I study. When I study it’s more like I’m lecturing to myself. It’s kind of an odd process, and I try condensing it down to how simple I can get the explanation of something. I think that was part of the reason why I thought, ‘If I can teach myself, I can teach anybody.’”

Weatherford-Pratt learned on his own how to navigate the process of applying to graduate programs. He wound up getting accepted to Washington State University, Kansas State University and Virginia.

He settled on the fully funded PhD program at UVA, and he’ll be moving there later this summer to begin his studies. He’s still determining his research direction but could end up working with a faculty member who specializes in inorganic chemistry and works with energy relevant catalysts or with one of two physical chemists – one who studies surface chemistry and another who works with supercritical fluids.

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