Grad Student Q&A: STAVROS KARIOFILLIS

By Wendy Plump
Monday, Jun. 28, 2021

To the considerable skills Stavros Kariofillis has acquired in his years at the Department of Chemistry, add cross-country-lab-mover. Next month, Kariofillis will assist departing faculty member Abigail Doyle as she sets up a new lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a rising fifth-year graduate student, Kariofillis had the choice to remain at Princeton to finish his doctorate or go to California. He chose the latter option, joining a handful of Doyle lab mates on the West Coast. Kariofillis plans to return to Princeton next spring for his defense. He spoke about the upcoming experience and his excitement for his first trip to LA.

WHAT DROVE YOUR DECISION TO FINISH YOUR DEGREE IN CALIFORNIA?

My class is in an interesting spot because we have only one year left. And of course, we had the option to go out or to stay here. Both are great choices, so I thought hard about it and ultimately decided it was a move I wanted to make. After four years in the lab, I want to help Abby get her lab up and running in LA. I owe a lot to her; she’s been the most instrumental part of my success. So, it’s an opportunity for me to give something back to the lab and support her in this new stage. Additionally, I think it will be exciting to meet the faculty and students at UCLA. It’s an opportunity to expand my network and see how other institutions operate.

Doyle Lab fifth-year graduate student Stavros Kariofillis.
Doyle Lab fifth-year graduate student Stavros Kariofillis.
Photo by C. Todd Reichart

WHICH INSTITUTION WILL YOU DEFEND WITH?

My doctoral degree will be from Princeton. It’s important for me to keep that degree here at Princeton after four years and to come back to present my research to the faculty, staff, and the friends that I have made. I’ll be a visiting graduate researcher at UCLA, but making progress towards my Princeton doctoral degree across the country.

HOW DO YOU MOVE AN ENTIRE LAB ACROSS COUNTRY?

I don’t know, exactly. I do know it’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of organization – I really appreciate the system that our lab has established for slowly getting ourselves and the lab ready. Getting everything in our lab out there is going to be half of the battle, and the second half is going to be unboxing everything and getting instruments up and running. It will be a lot of work, but also will be incredibly rewarding – definitely a skill set I think will prove to be valuable in setting up new lab spaces in the future and learning how to maintain and operate instruments.

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND IN CHEMISTRY?

I completed my undergraduate studies at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Actually, I grew up in Easton, PA, just a 10-minute drive up the hill from the college. The proximity deterred me from Lafayette initially, but I was excited that Lafayette offers the rare combination of a liberal arts education with research-intensive programs. I think it laid an important foundation for the research I do at Princeton. I started working in an organometallic lab between my first and second years synthesizing molecules – before even taking an organic chemistry class – and I became totally captivated with the thought that you could draw a structure on paper and walk into the lab and make it. I also participated in an REU at the University of Michigan. 

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH ….

Photoredox catalysis – which our department has become so well-known for – has enabled many historically challenging transformations under mild conditions with one-electron chemistry. However, it can still be challenging to generate unstabilized and highly energetic radicals, namely methyl radicals. There’s a phenomenon known as the “Magic Methyl Effect,” where methylation can enhance the bioactivity of a molecule. But the reagents we use towards that aim are typically either toxic or highly reactive, presenting safety and implementation challenges. My research has focused on developing a nickel-catalyzed, light-driven method for installing methyl groups from abundant and functional group tolerant methyl sources. This has been particularly enabling for modifying pharmaceutically relevant compounds at a late stage. 

WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN GRAD SCHOOL THAT YOU DIDN’T ANTICIPATE?

I have definitely learned a lot, but two things really stand out to me. Firstly, failure happens a lot. When it happens, take a day to think about what went wrong, what a negative result teaches you (a negative result is still a result!), and make a plan on where to go from there. Critical thinking about your research is so important. Abby always told us that a day spent in the library is just as valuable as a day spent in the lab. The second thing is to surround yourself with different people and to embrace your network. It is so important to have lab mates and coworkers you can run ideas by and discuss research with, but also to talk about other things going on in life. My friends and I have all gone through this experience together, starting with completing problem sets and presenting our first group meetings to each other to running through our polished third-year seminars. The people you surround yourself with get you through your lows and celebrate your achievements. 

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS WITH DOUBTS ABOUT THEIR ABILITIES?

The biggest advice I would give now is to really think about your interests and what gets you excited. Your thought process should be less of “can I do this?” and more of “is this what I want to be doing?” You come to graduate school to learn and gain the skills to become a researcher, so you don’t have to come in as a rock star. If the science interests you, you’re going to be intrinsically motivated to see yourself grow and develop in many different ways. If you don’t love the field you study and don’t get excited about learning and making new breakthroughs, that’s where I think the problems lie. The concern shouldn’t be whether or not you can do it.

WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT PRINCETON?

There is definitely a homeyness to Princeton that I really love. It’s uncommon to go out for a coffee break or to lunch on Nassau Street and not run into someone you know. It has been important for me to be able to walk through town and through the University on my way to the lab because I do love the town and campus. Also, I love running a lot, so the towpath has been like a second home to me. 

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO AT UCLA?

I wouldn’t have made the decision to move there if I wasn’t excited about meeting new people and getting the lab set up. But I think I’m interested in seeing, well, first … I’ve never seen Los Angeles. I’ve already started scoping out Westwood and I have this list of things I want to do (at the top of the list is being able to run a few miles to the beach). But I’m also interested to see how my lab mates and I take on this challenge and adjustment. It’s going to be a major team effort with a lot of moving parts. I think that ultimately it will bring us closer and give us a whole new skill set that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.