The CHOPs to succeed: Marco Lopez

Marco Lopez

A unique program from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Chemistry invites prospective students to explore the Ph.D. program at no expense.  The Chemistry Opportunities (CHOPs) program invites approximately 20 highly qualified prospective students to the Department of Chemistry for an all-expense-paid weekend to meet one-on-one with faculty, learn about the program, tour instrumentation facilities, and network with graduate student hosts. Participants also enjoy the UW campus and city of Madison during, arguably the most enjoyable season, fall. CHOPs was first launched in the fall of 2012 with 14 attendees.  Since that first year, 187 students have attended the weekend with nearly 80% being accepted places in the Ph.D. program. 

Applications for this year’s event (September 21-24, 2023) are due by June

Meet CHOPs participant, Marco Lopez of the Stahl group. 

What made you want to pursue science as a career?

A career in science provides me with the opportunity to solve highly impactful problems, collaborate with people who share my interests, and learn new insights–All of which are elements I truly enjoy! 

Who inspires you? Is there a specific mentor or guide who has made things easier?

I draw inspiration from individuals in and outside of chemistry. First, my father, a retired custodian, and my mother, a preschool teacher, taught me to value hard work and education. I also find inspiration from Prof. Josh Buss (University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor), who served as my mentor during my first two years of grad school. Besides technical training, Josh challenged me to think about my science at a high level all the while having fun in the lab. I strive to emulate his scientific traits. I am grateful to these people because they have helped me become the person and scientist I am today.

What challenges did you face getting into graduate school? How did the weekend CHOPs program help?

One of the challenges I faced during the graduate school application process was writing a personal/research statement. CHOPs really helped here by providing resources that specifically focus on improving the writing process. 

Did you tap into other resources before applying to grad school?

Yes! I reached out to prospective graduate programs and asked for an application fee waiver. 

Tell us more about your weekend at UW through CHOPs. What did you learn? Were there any surprises?

My CHOPs weekend was filled with new insights about graduate school and Madison all the while meeting new friends. Growing up in California, I never would have imagined moving to the Midwest. The CHOPs program served as a great introduction to the city of Madison and helped me envision myself here. Secondly, I learned about all the cutting-edge science happening in the department. I knew that I wanted to do organic chemistry and meeting with students/professors in this area helped me gain more excitement about grad school! It was also nice to meet people from different backgrounds who were also going through the graduate school application process. 

Tell us about your current research.

My current research involves developing new synthetic methods that streamline the synthesis of bioactive drug targets. Specifically, my work prioritizes benzylic functionalization of alkyl-substituted heterocycles via sequential halogenation/functionalization strategies.

What grad courses did you like most?

My favorite graduate course was CHEM 841-Advanced Organic Chemistry! This course was taught by Prof. Tehshik Yoon and Prof. Steve Burke who taught me to appreciate the beauty of synthesis from a fundamental level. 

As you complete grad school, what do you envision your career path looking like? What experiences have prepared you for that path? 

I am grateful to say that I have secured a senior scientist position at Gilead Sciences in Foster City, California. A careful balance of failure, learning how to think critically, and overcoming challenges helped prepare me for this career path.

When you’re not studying or doing research, what do you like to do?

I like to sing! I was fortunate enough in grad school to find individuals who share my music interests and I often “jam” with them.

If you or someone you know is interested in applying to this year’s CHOPs weekend to explore the chemistry Ph.D. program at UW–Madison, contact Desiree Bates at or visit