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Idaho State University

ISU undergrad Robbie Spiers off to fast start doing high-level research

September 1, 2020

POCATELLO – While the vast majority of his classmates were preparing for the new 2020 fall semester by buying books and doing the usual things, Idaho State University junior Robbie Spiers was delivering a “Broadcast talk” at the American Chemical Society’s 2020 Virtual Meeting and Expo, held Aug. 14-17.

ISU undergrad Robbie Spiers off to fast start doing high-level research
Professor John Kalivas, left, and undergraduate Robbie Spiers standing by the research poster Spiers presented at a recent conference. (Photo by Eric Gordon, University Photographer)

A physics major from Boise with minors in mathematics and computer science, Spiers’s abstract was selected for one of only 32 Broadcast talks out of 187 presentations in the Analytical Chemistry Division. His presentation was given in the Symposium “Machine Learning: How is it Enhancing Analytical Chemistry?” was 30 minutes long and was followed by a five-minute question-and-answer session.

Spiers’ talk was likely the only Broadcast talk delivered by an undergraduate ­­– the rest were delivered by career professionals, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, according to John Kalivas, an ISU chemistry professor who runs the ISU analytical chemistry research lab that Spiers works in. Kalivas’ research is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

In total, the conference, the largest of the ACS, featured about 6,400 presentations.

“He is the best I have seen work in my lab in the last 35 years,” Kalivas said.

Robbie Spiers with poster in the background.As a sophomore, after only working in Kalivas’s lab for a few months, the 19-year-old Spiers presented a poster at SciX 2019, the annual meeting for the Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies and his poster took first place as he competed with graduate students.

“I think it is incredible and I think I am especially lucky to have a great advisor like Dr. Kalivas, who has allowed me to participate in these conferences,” said Spiers, who is in the University Honors Program. “I remember when I first started in the lab, I was probably working there no longer than a month, when he asked me ‘hey do you want to present a poster at SciX.’”

Spiers said that he was honored as a sophomore to present research at the SciX conference, the largest for people in its fields.  

“It was a big deal to go present at that conference,” Spiers said. “And then to win the first-place poster award was completely unbelievable to me. It was an incredible thing to be able to present my research to people who are professors and know everything in the field. It was stressful to me, but I am so glad that I got the opportunity to present there. And furthermore, it has just kind of snowballed into more and more things, for example this ACS talk.”

His presentations are not ending. Coming up in mid-October, Spiers will present at SciX 2020, this time delivering one of 75 “on-demand talks” out of about 1,000 total presentations. Once again, Spiers will likely be the only undergraduate presenting this level of research presentation at the conference.

Attending ISU and working in the Kalivas lab has stoked a passion in Spiers for research, who plans to pursue a doctorate in physics when he graduates from ISU.

“I really love the research so I would like to do research for the rest of my life,” he said. “With so many great experiences with professors here and professors at conferences, I’d like to carry on that tradition and be a professor of physics somewhere.”  

Spiers originally became interested in attending ISU after his current advisor, ISU physics professor Steve Shropshire, gave a presentation at his high school. He considered attending and applied to several other schools, but he chose ISU because of the quality of its physics program and its cost – which was much lower than the other universities he looked at.

“So my original reason to come to ISU, to be completely honest, was that it was unparalleled in terms of cost,” Spiers said. “I had no other colleges that were even close to the cost of the university, but also I had heard incredible things about the physics program. Coming here, in hindsight, has been probably the best decision I have ever made in my life. The research benefits, first of all, have just been incredible. I have had the opportunity to do research in one of the most cutting-edge analytical chemistry labs in the nation.” 

He has been impressed by the support he’s received from faculty and staff.

“I think the professors here are just so invested in the education,” Spiers said. “Dr. Kalivas has been pushing me forward so much. He said ‘alright you apply for these talks, I want you to give these talks rather than me, because I think it will help out your career so immensely and it will give you these opportunities.’”

“I think that is the mindset of almost all the professors here at Idaho State University,” he continued, “They are not focused on how they themselves look, they are really concerned how the students are learning. That has been awesome. I think in terms of cost, education, research ability and just care for the students that Idaho State university really is just unparalleled.”