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National Merit Scholar finalist follows her father’s footsteps to NIU

June 14, 2021

NIU Chemistry Professor Douglas Klumpp’s daughter, Rachel, basically grew up by his side in Faraday Hall.

Rachel Klumpp and her father, Professor Douglas Klumpp.

She’d watch Disney movies in her father’s office. On weekends when the building was empty, she’d ride her big wheel up and down the halls as her father worked.

This fall, she’ll walk those hallways as a National Merit Scholar finalist and an official Huskie. The national distinction places the 17-year-old Sycamore High School graduate in the top one percent of high school seniors in the U.S.

The National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes students who demonstrate exceptional academic ability based on their performance on the PSAT taken during the junior year.

Recruited by elite schools, Rachel Klumpp chose once again to be by her father’s side at her second home—NIU. She’s enrolled as a chemistry major.

“My dad has worked at NIU for as long as I can remember. That really has given NIU a special place in my heart,” she said.

“I know the layouts of all the buildings, which ones have the coldest air-conditioning, which ones smell funny, which is usually the chemistry building…. Everyone is friendly and welcoming. I like that closeness and feeling of home it provides.”

Rachel already has some experience in NIU’s chemistry labs, having researched alongside her father and his students. Some of her research was even published last year in a chemistry journal.

Done in collaboration with the Geneva-based company, Fona International, the project resulted in a patent with NIU and FONA. Rachel was able to make compounds that have novel cooling properties. Used in gums and breath mints, the compounds create a delayed onset of flavor.

“You don’t feel or taste anything for a few minutes, and then all of sudden there’s a coolness in your mouth,” said Professor Klumpp, Ph.D., who first came to NIU in 2003. Since, he and his students have published more than 40 peer-reviewed manuscripts and given more than 40 presentations at scientific conferences.

To say he’s proud of his daughter is an understatement.

“To be able to work together on something like that, it’s a lot like a parent being able to coach a son or daughter on a sports team, but this is a little more near and dear to my heart being my profession,” Professor Klumpp said.

Rachel always enjoyed science growing up.

Since fourth grade, she’d assist her father with chemistry demonstrations in local elementary classrooms.

“It was very soon after I realized this chemistry stuff is kind of cool,” she said.

It wasn’t long before she was joining him in the NIU lab.

“It was pretty thrilling getting to know this is what people do to create these new compounds, things that could revolutionize industries and all that, and generally change lives,” she said.

She talks about perhaps one day pursing biology, biotechnology, maybe quantum physics.

Born with the birth defect, craniosynostosis, Rachel has faced challenges throughout her young life.

Two of her skull plates were fused as a newborn and she had to undergo lengthy surgery. Later, she was diagnosed with autism and other neural developmental disorders.

“I’ve struggled with a lot both physically and mentally, but I’ve worked hard,” she said. “I’ve come pretty far.”

Whatever journey she takes at NIU, her father is confident she’ll succeed.

“I think over the years she’s had to overcome so many challenges physically that it has toughened her up mentally and prepared her almost perfectly for the whole college experience,” he said.