Lab Rat of the Week: Alex M. Willis ’14 From the Lab to the Stage

Alex Willis
Courtesy of Alex Willis

At first glance, one might not realize that the Alex M. Willis ’14 on the poster of the upcoming Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club production of “Cabaret” is the same Alex Willis who spends 10 to 15 hours a week conducting cutting-edge chemistry research the lab of Chemistry Professor Theodore A. Betley.

Willis, a resident of Quincy House, has managed to pursue a truly diverse set of interests during his time at Harvard. However, he doesn’t perceive his busy schedule as something stressful to maintain.

“It’s all just a matter of calendar work,” he explained simply. “It’s mainly a time issue, not an interest issue.”

His blockmate Chris J. Masterson ’14 can attest to Willis’ incredible work ethic.

“He’s very dedicated to everything he does, and he definitely never leaves things unfinished,” said Masterson.

When the Chemistry and Physics concentrator is not spending hours choreographing dance pieces and shows like the Harvard Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players' “The Mikado,” he’s in the Mallinckrodt building working on “synthesizing novel multinuclear metal complexes.”

Essentially, Willis is testing metals under different conditions to form new metal structures. While most metals consist of atoms packed in a particular order, Willis is trying to construct new metal complexes with different internal orders.  In particular, he is experimenting with metal cores consisting of six iron atoms fused with two other metal atoms such as copper or manganese. He currently works with graduate student Raúl H. Sanchez, who shared how quickly Willis picks up on things.

“Recently, I was asking him to do a particular filtration. After that, I then went ahead to teach him how to do it when he says, ‘Oh, I know how to do that, I saw another student doing it the other day.’ Sure enough, he knew how to do it,” said Sanchez.

Willis’ adaptable mind is also evident in the way that he was able to smoothly transition from working in a physical organic chemistry lab in Japan this past summer to an inorganic chemistry lab here at Harvard.

“I was just trying different hemispheres of chemistry,” said Willis.

He had spent two months with the Nakamura Group at Tokyo University “combining all the best parts” of previous research experiments to build molecules that could help absorb the energy of sunlight in solar cells. Whereas most solar panels incorporated metal complexes, Willis’ work focused on using organic molecules instead. Through the Japan-U.S. Undergraduate Research Exchange Program, spearheaded by Harvard Physics Professor John M. Doyle, Willis was able to use the experience to discover that he preferred inorganic chemistry to its organic counterpart and returned to Harvard with fresh research ideas.

“Alex is really passionate about what he does, whether it’s staying up figuring out quantum physics problems or dressing up in drag for another performance of the Hasty Pudding show,” said blockmate Dylan J. Nagler ’14.

However, the specifics of his blockmate’s scientific experiments are lost on Nagler.

“I don’t know all that much about what he does inside the lab, although I remember him telling me that he spent the entirety of this past summer in a lab in Japan ‘trying to make something purple,’” he said.

When asked about his goals for the future, Willis shrugged and said, “I know I want to go to grad school for chemistry.”

“I just want to do good research.”