Candice Crilly, Ph.D. Candidate makes advancements in molecular research; mentors students



May 25, 2021 | By Hanna Williams, The Graduate School

Candice Crilly found her passion for mentoring others through her time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in chemistry. Through her time at Occidental College where she received her undergraduate degree, Crilly discovered that research was a gateway to help her mentor others. “My summer undergraduate research experience really taught me how cool research is,” Crilly said. “A big part of that is I had great mentors who were great at teaching.”

In addition to pursuing her Ph.D., Crilly mentors students ranging from high school to the graduate level. She said that her favorite part about the overlap between research and mentorship is helping people grow. “I’m a person who often gives unsolicited advice, but I really like seeing students’ eyes light up and becoming more independent. One of my favorite parts of mentorship is when they get to the point of correcting me.”Crilly said she chose to attend UNC-Chapel Hill because of its reputation as a research institution. At Carolina, she studies under Gary Pielak, a Kenan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, and is a part of his research group. “When I got to UNC, I wanted to mentor people, and mentorship is a big part of his lab,” she said.

Crilly also uses her field as an area to support women and minorities in STEM. “Growing up, I would hear things like women aren’t as good at science,” she said. “I imagine if you don’t see anyone who looks like you, anyone you can confide in, that can make you question yourself, and sense of belonging, even more.” Crilly is a former leader of WinSPIRE (Women in Science Promoting Inclusion in Research Experiences) where she helped women from diverse backgrounds progress in science-related fields. The 2021 University Awards for the Advancement of Women, an initiative sponsored annually as a collaborative effort between the Office of the Chancellor and the Carolina Women’s Center, recognized Crilly this spring.

Among her various research advancements Crilly has completed at UNC-Chapel Hill, her most recent work focused on the study of tardigrades, microscopic animals that can withstand extreme conditions. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, can survive with very little water. She explained that during her research in Pielak’s lab, she studied the molecules that allow for tardigrades’ ability to survive and what happens to their biomolecules when they dry out. Implications of this research could include how these molecules could be used to stabilize drugs, including vaccines, to allow them to sit at room temperature.

Crilly said marks of a good scientist include curiosity and perspective. “If we have a lot of diverse perspectives, you’re going to have a lot of diverse ideas. It’s important for coming up with new innovative ways to come up with new answers in science,” she said.

After obtaining her Ph.D. from Carolina, Crilly plans to pursue a post-doctoral research fellowship with a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara where she hopes to continue studying water, molecules, and freezing temperatures.

The Department of Chemistry is housed in the College of Arts & Sciences. Gary Pielak, Ph.D., holds a joint appointment at the UNC School of Medicine.