Detroit Mercy student’s research leads to opportunity at NASA

May 07, 2019
Nicholas Boynton is seen at a NASA research center.

Nicholas Boynton started doing research at University of Detroit Mercy as a freshman because he thought it sounded interesting. He didn’t know the effect it would have on his life.

The research led to an internship at NASA after his sophomore year and a second internship at NASA after his junior year. These experiences led Boynton to change his career path and after graduating from Detroit Mercy with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry on May 11, he will begin working on his Ph.D. at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago.

“Not to use the phrase loosely but it changed my life,” Boynton said of the research opportunity he received at Detroit Mercy as a freshman. “It really did. Every time I talk to my dad he always says, ‘You got the chance to get in there right away and it helped you so much.’ And yeah, it really did.”

Boynton came to Detroit Mercy thinking he would play lacrosse and earn a degree before heading to medical school. But he quickly fell in love with chemistry and research, and decided that’s what he wanted to concentrate on.

He admits telling his father he wanted to be a chemist was difficult at first. His father, who is an attorney, originally thought Boynton was going to earn an MBA at Detroit Mercy and was supportive when Boynton told him he wanted to go to medical school instead.

“When I told him I think I want to go into chemistry and I don’t think I want to be a doctor anymore, he was like, ‘What are you going to do with a chemistry degree?’ That was his initial reaction,” Boynton said. “Over time I started sending him emails with articles to let him know, ‘Here’s the chemistry that was involved in this. Here’s why we need chemists.’ Then once I got the NASA internship there were no worries anymore. He was excited, he was thrilled. I think now, he’s more excited that I’m going this route, which is pretty cool.”

Nicholas Boynton poses for a photo with his parents.Boynton still remembers every detail of the day when he found out he got the NASA internship. He had just finished a final and was heading home.

“It was kind of a whirlwind day,” Boynton said. “Professor (Matthew) Mio pushed me toward the NASA internship and told me to apply. Not in a million years did I think I was going to get to work at NASA because of the research I was doing at Detroit Mercy. It was pretty surprising, just a crazy day. I think my mom cried when I told her.”

Boynton went to Cleveland to begin his internship at NASA, but in the back of the head he still wondered, ‘Why did they pick me?’

“Once I got there and was a little more comfortable with my mentor (Dr. Mary Ann Meador) and everyone else around me, I kind of wanted to know why specifically did they pick me?” Boynton said. “She was like, ‘You had a bunch of organic synthesis research up to that point. We saw you’ve been doing it for a year and half.’ And with the project they were working on at that time, they needed someone with an organic synthesis background to move the project along.

“They saw I had those skills and had been doing it for so long, and it wasn’t just I took a course, I did it outside of class and I was able to talk about the research in the typed application. She thought that was incredible. And once I got there she was impressed.”

Boynton went back to NASA for a second internship after his junior year and they decided to give him even more responsibility.

“They were impressed with how the first summer went so they were like, ‘Let’s give you a tougher job,’ ” Boynton said. “I get there, they give me a few papers, they haven’t started the project yet so I get after it. I was trying to 3-D print gels to turn into aerogels and it was completely new. It was probably my first heavy Ph.D., graduate-level research experience where 90% of what you do doesn’t work. But it’s a lot of fun, once something does work it’s amazing. The ups and the downs, really attacking a project, trying to think through everything, reading literature, using the skills I had, that kind of stuff. It was really fascinating.”

Boynton also impressed NASA because he knew how to run a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, something not many other students know how to do.

“A lot of big schools have a technician who runs that so when you’re in your lab you just hand them your sample and they do everything,” Boynton said. “When I got there I was like, ‘Yeah I know how to run that we’ve used it at school.’ They were surprised by that and by the end of the summer I was writing a brief report on how to use the instrument for other people that weren’t as comfortable with it.

“I would run the instruments and use the technicians for guidance, but for the most part do things on my own. I was able to do all of this because I was in a lab at Detroit Mercy as a freshman trying to figure things out.”

Nicholas Boynton poses for a photo.Boynton credits Detroit Mercy Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Mio for being his mentor and allowing him to have a lot of freedom in the lab to do research that interests him.

“I’ve told Professor Mio he’s been the biggest influence on my life outside of my parents,” Boynton said. “He very subtly since freshman year pushed me in certain directions, thrown opportunities at me and really encouraged me to expand my research interests and go after things. If I’m interested in something, he’s like, ‘Yeah, go for it.’

“He’s an excellent resource here. He’s definitely someone I plan on keeping in touch with. As he says, ‘When you graduate, we’ll be friends.’ ”

Mio helped Boynton confirm his decision to be a chemist and supported him when Boynton was worried about telling his parents.

“Nick will always be in a small group of students who wanted to engage in lab research early,” Mio said. “He may not have known it four years ago, but he was destined to be a materials chemist.”

The close relationship with Mio and his other professors at Detroit Mercy also helped Boynton navigate a tough situation when he was in a car accident and suffered a severe concussion.

“I was pretty severely concussed for months,” Boynton said. “I had heard horror stories of kids who were at bigger schools and had that happen through sports and the school basically said, ‘Too bad, hopefully you figure it out.’ That kind of thing. And I didn’t have that at all. Everyone was extremely helpful and everyone was there for me. It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Wow, coming to a small school like Detroit Mercy was so important.’ I probably wouldn’t be graduating if I went somewhere else.

“I think it speaks to Detroit Mercy’s whole environment. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to help each other out. Everyone has those Jesuit traditions and values that resonate everywhere and make people want to help each other. All of my professors were amazing, I had to take my finals late and there was never an issue. It was an extremely stressful time that was made a lot easier just by being on this campus and something I’m really thankful for.”

Recently, Boynton earned the 2019 American Chemical Society Award and recently co-authored a paper that was published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

In addition to his work in chemistry, he served on the executive team for Campus Kitchen, was a commencement coordinator and worked as a tutor at Detroit Mercy’s Learning Center.

“At Detroit Mercy, I love being in an environment where you get the opportunity to do a bunch of things,” Boynton said. “You get the chance to be involved. I’ve played lacrosse here for four years, had the chance to be in a research lab in chemistry for 3 1/2 years, volunteered in Campus Kitchen, helped at commencement, tutored at the Learning Center, just all the different opportunities have been amazing.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.