I am a 2nd-year Ph.D. student, science communicator, and activist.



My general research interests revolve around understanding how crystals grow and, more specifically, how living things grow crystals (think: our bones, a lobster’s shell, a plant cystolith). This process is called ‘biomineralization’.

My first research experience was in Dr. Brian Romans’ Sedimentary Systems lab at Virginia Tech. There, my project’s goal was to look at thin sections (literally, extremely thin slices of rock that you can look at under a microscope) from an oil reservoir in the Tres Pasos formation and determine relationships between the sediment quality and the sampling location within the reservoir. I loved the discovery aspect of the research, but I wanted to be able to use my background in chemistry by working in a wet lab and doing experiments.

So, my next set of research experiences were in Dr. Patricia Dove’s Biogeochemistry of Earth Materials lab. Working in her lab and with her Ph.D. student (now Dr.) Sebastian Mergelsberg, showed me how truly complex natural systems are and how necessary interdisciplinary research is to study & interpret them. My research was at the interface of materials science, chemistry, geology, and biology, which have led to two manuscripts! The one for the second project I worked on there is still in preparation, and the first one was published here. In this first project, we studied the chemistry of the lobster shell and show that they control the chemical composition of their shell by maintaining a constant ratio of a few key elements across all their body parts except for the claws. What is even cooler was that we think this trend might be followed in other crustaceans too!

Doing research reminded me why I was drawn to chemistry in the first place: it’s a puzzle. Each data point, each observation, and each conclusion are pieces which, when put together, reveal a picture of something we didn’t know much (if anything!) about. The research process is never-ending; the puzzle expands infinitely. With new knowledge comes new questions, in a continuous cycle. The mentorship I received from Dr. Dove and Sebastian was invaluable and showed me the degree of influence mentors can play on nurturing students’ curiosity. I hope to be able to have the same effect on students I mentor, helping them to unlock and achieve their full potential.

Now at UCLA, I am working in Dr. Aradhna Tripati's Paleoclimate and Biogeochemistry lab with the overall theme of my research studying biomineralization, including how the different processes that living things use to form their mineralized structures (i.e., shells, cystoliths, or bones) affect chemical signals use to reconstruct past environmental conditions. My work has wide-ranging implications and applications across science and engineering, from new materials synthesis to paleoclimate research, cement, and biomedical calcification.

The projects I am currently working on are listed on my CV. If you want to know more and/or are interested in working with me, feel free to get in touch!


Rob Ulrich in his Virginia Tech graduation robe and regalia at the Pylons.

Rob Ulrich in his Virginia Tech graduation robe and regalia at the Pylons.

I received my dual-degrees in Chemistry and Geosciences from Virginia Tech in May 2017. The majority of my research at Virginia Tech was done with Dr. Patricia Dove in her Biogeochemistry of Earth Materials lab under the mentorship of her Ph.D. student, Sebastian Mergelsberg.

After graduating from Virginia Tech, I interned at S.S. Papadopulos & Associates, an environmental consulting firm internationally recognized for their practices in geochemistry, environmental engineering, contaminant studies, remediation, and surface-water hydrology. I worked on various geochemical projects from looking at the interactions between recycled concrete to comparing stable isotope mixing models for investigations looking at contaminate sources.

Right now, I am a second-year Biogeochemistry Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) working with Dr. Aradhna Tripati in her Paleoclimate and Biogeochemistry lab. Here, I do my research, help ensure the lab functions, and mentor undergraduate students. My funding comes from my two fellowships: 1) the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and 2) the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science Fellowship. Living in Los Angeles is expensive, so I additionally supplement my take-home income by working as a writing consultant at UCLA’s Graduate Writing Center.

Rob Ulrich working in one of the Tripati Lab mass spectrometer rooms. The mass spectrometers pictured here are both Nu Carbs and Nu Perspective instruments that have been engineered to be able to measure carbon, oxygen, and carbonate ‘clumped’ isotopes.

Rob Ulrich working in one of the Tripati Lab mass spectrometer rooms. The mass spectrometers pictured here are both Nu Carbs and Nu Perspective instruments that have been engineered to be able to measure carbon, oxygen, and carbonate ‘clumped’ isotopes.


As the founding president of Queers in STEM (QSTEM) and a Center for Diverse Leadership in Science (CDLS) fellow, I have learned skills and lessons to apply to my activism. Myself, identifying as biracial and queer is isolating, a feeling that’s effect was compounded when I attended undergraduate at in institution in a small town in southwest Virginia. When I came to UCLA to begin my PhD at UCLA, I came determined to create spaces where I and other LGBTQ+-identifying and underrepresented people in STEM could come together and form supportive and empowering networks and, most importantly, reinforce that we are not alone–to do everything in my power to mitigate that trauma for anybody else.

QSTEM is a student-run organization based out of UCLA. It has become a space for diversity & inclusion advocacy centering LGBTQ+ and intersecting communities. We have organized events ranging from coffee meet-n-greets and guided nature hikes to lightning research talk symposia and facilitated discussions revolving the issues and experiences faced by LGBTQ+ peoples navigating STEM environments. We have created a community that extends beyond UCLA’s campus, and we have begun to collaborate with organizations at other universities and even other countries. Along with the SACNAS chapter at UC-Irvine, this year (2019) we are organizing the next Reclaiming STEM, the only science communication and science policy workshop put on by and is for underrepresented minorities in STEM, on both the east and west coasts (let me know if you want more info!). Also, we are collaborating with organizations such as Pride in STEM, House of STEM, Out in STEM, LGBT STEM, 500 Queer Scientists, and InterEngineering to organize the next international LGBTQ+ STEM Day taking place on July 5th.

CDLS is an initiative that was founded by Dr. Aradhna Tripati at UCLA to fight for diversity and inclusion in STEM, especially in the Earth, oceanic, atmospheric, and environmental sciences, with the objectives of: investing in student scientific retention, mentorship, outreach, and developing collaborative, accessible research and teaching environments. Being proactive since the beginning of CDLS, I helped lay the groundwork for a number of CDLS’s core programs, namely the K–12 outreach programs, the Diversi-Tea discussion series, our annual research & outreach symposium, and the early career speaker series. Having the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Tripati has shown me how pervasive and deeply rooted racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are in STEM.

Science Communication

Rob Ulrich presenting his researching at the Queers in STEM annual Fall Lighting Talks symposium.

Rob Ulrich presenting his researching at the Queers in STEM annual Fall Lighting Talks symposium.

One of the recurrent things that I say when I am asked why I do science is this:

"One of the best and most important parts of science is being able to share it."

It is not simply about getting others excited about science (though, getting someone to that "Eureka!" moment is absolutely priceless), but also increasing science literacy. This is especially important in this day and age where the spread of misinformation is prevalent. 

I am an editor for the CDLS’s environmental science blog Climate Currents. We are currently working on write-ups of interviews with climate scientists. Additionally, as an effort to gain exposure to other fields of science and aid other people in their writing, I am an writing consultant at UCLA’s Graduate Writing Center.

I also have been creating a collection of series of "Week in the Life of a Graduate Student" vlogs. Here, I am hoping that the vlogs will form a database of peoples' unique experiences in higher education, with a focus on graduate school. Although vlogs are by no means a new idea, currently there are few focused on graduate students in STEM in the United States. Get in touch if you want to be involved!

Lastly, in an effort to improve my own communication and communication pedagogy skills, I am constantly looking for workshops to observe and reading books on science history and philosophy.