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South Carolina Honors College

  • Ian Bongolonta

Always up for a challenge

If there’s one thing about Ian Bongolonta, it’s that he likes a challenge. He took on many during his four years in the South Carolina Honors College, from artistic extracurricular pursuits to shepherding underclassmen as a resident mentor. Then there was his major. Chemistry presented challenges galore.

“I love not knowing how to do something, and I love not understanding things because it gives me an opportunity to conquer that barrier of understanding,” said Bongalonta, a Goose Creek, South Carolina, native who graduated in May 2021. To him, chemistry is “a perfect intersection between math and science,” an ever-changing field that presents new learning methods.  

Unlike many chemists, Bongalonta doesn’t work in a lab but through computational modeling simulations. The Magellan Scholar worked as a research assistant studying thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. More recently, he participated in COVID-19 research as a research fellow at Northeastern University, where he scanned potential drug targets.

For his Honors thesis, he took the Pariser-Parr-Pople method and tried to extend its formulations so that it could be applied to three-dimensional molecules instead of flat, two-dimensional ones. The Pariser-Parr-Pople method is semi-empirical, which means it combines theory and experiment to describe something, but currently it only works for flat, two-dimensional models.

The thesis project taught him how to apply and synthesize his knowledge while providing the chance to learn more about his future area of specialty. Bongalonta wants to go into electronic structure theory, which explores the shapes of molecules, electron behavior and how math can be used to describe those things. 

“This project was a really good stepping stone into the field, and really hammered down a lot of the concepts I’ve learned in my quantum mechanics classes,” he said.

Bongalonta minored in math and Spanish, immersing himself in the language by consuming its music and media. He loves broadening his horizons through learning new languages.

“I feel like as a human being, you’re really limiting yourself if you only know one language,” said Bongalonta, who also is fluent in Tagalog and Bikol. “Literature and expression are not just in English, and while you can translate things, it’s definitely not the same. I feel like you can really connect more with someone by learning their language. I think the quote by Nelson Mandela is like ‘if you speak to a man in his second language, you're speaking to his brain. If you speak to him in his first, you’re speaking to his heart.’”

A bassoon player since high school, Bongalonta joined the university’s symphony orchestra and wind ensemble. The practice and appreciation of music makes you a better person, he upholds.

“Naturally — I admit this — I’m a very undisciplined person. Music really taught me how to hammer down scheduling and discipline, and it was definitely an outlet. Performing a solo after preparing it for months is really something.”

As well as working as an Honors ambassador, Bongalonta was a resident mentor for the Honors Residence Hall. For him, being an RM felt like being a “proud dad” to his adopted kids.

“I love mentoring — watching people grow, watching people learn, giving people new experiences, kind of shaping how they approach the world.”

RM work taught him conflict management and critical mentoring skills. He saw how college students’ views of the world can change very quickly. Observing his residents taught him a lot about human nature and growing up.

Soon headed for the University of Chicago for his PhD, Bongalonta said his experience as an RM will help prepare him for his future career as a professor. He chose Chicago based on his own experience in the SCHC — a small, supportive environment he likens to a “warm hug.”

As a professor, he also wants to do outreach work, improve pedagogy and be a positive influence on students. Science cannot grow without diversity, and he plans on contributing to its improvement.

“I really want to increase the representation of fellow underrepresented groups in science,” he said. “I think that’s a really critical thing today because, if you think about the history of the United States and everything that’s happened, there are definitely marginalized communities with lots of untouched talent that just can’t be achieved because people don’t have the proper resources.”

Chemistry, he said, is the perfect field for someone who always wants to be intellectually stimulated by new developments and mental challenges. It also happens to be the perfect combination of everything he wants in one job.

“I think that a career in the sciences, specifically academia, combines my love of social justice, and people and learning new things.”

Haley Capps

Haley Capps

Haley Capps is a sophomore English and political science major and journalism minor in the Honors College and is from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In her free time, she loves baking, yoga and reading old books.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.