Chemical bonds: Graduate honors CSU chemistry professor

Chemistry Professor Nancy Levinger once kicked Kyle Kung out of her research lab. Now, years later, Kung has created an undergraduate research fellowship in her name.

Nancy Levinger, Department of Chemistry, Colorado State University
Nancy Levinger, Department of Chemistry, Colorado State University

Eager to dive into research as a freshman, Kung started working with Levinger in the spring of 1993. But after one successful semester, his grades slipped below a 3.0 GPA.  Levinger, then a fresh face in the Department of Chemistry, expected students in her lab to stay on top of their game, so she enforced her minimum-GPA rule. That meant Kung was out.

“I tell my students to this day that if you’re doing research, you should earn a 3.0 or better,” she says. “Otherwise it doesn’t make sense that you’re doing research.”

After surrendering his keys and his desk in the lab, Kung seized the opportunity he knew might slip away. He buckled down and soon returned to the lab after raising his GPA. He proved an outstanding contributor from then on, and, after graduating from CSU, he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from University of California- Berkeley. He’s since translated his training into a successful career in finance, and now works in banking in Hong Kong.

Still, he remembers his time in Levinger’s lab as one of his most important educational experiences. Throughout his career, he’s applied many of the lessons he learned there – some having little to do with chemistry.

“I was extremely fortunate to have had Nancy as my freshman adviser and work with her as an undergraduate researcher,” Kung says. “I learned the research and critical thinking skills that allowed me to succeed in my graduate and professional career.”

A Teacher and Mentor

Although Levinger challenges her students, she also revels in their victories. Despite her apparent tough-love approach to labs, she is effervescent when talking about her students’ growth. She also is an emphatic and active supporter of undergraduate research opportunities (she’s a long-time donor.)

“Kyle was the first undergraduate who did research in my lab,” she says. “He was unbelievably valuable. Essentially, I set him to the task of interfacing computers to equipment. He always had a smile on his face – like a perma-smile – and he was just such a happy, radiant and positive individual.”

This was in 1993, before most people had email. Computer interfacing wasn’t exactly “easy” work, not the least for an undergraduate.

“While I knew I was going to get to do some really cool science in her lab,” Kung says, “I had no idea of the impact Nancy would have on my growth.” Having mastered the computer work, Kung moved on to working alongside graduate students, aligning lasers, collecting data, and publishing papers.

He just kept going from there.

A True Gift

One Monday in January, Kung emailed Levinger out of the blue and pitched the idea of creating an undergraduate research fellowship in her name.  At a moment of opportunity with his career, he was considering where he might want to give back, and his experience with Levinger leapt to his mind.

He decided to help current and future CSU students access the opportunities he had back when he didn’t have many financial resources at his disposal.

“Without scholarships, it would not have been possible for me to go to college full-time or conduct research with Nancy during the summers,” he says. “I want to contribute back to the University by offering support for students to work with their professors on research because that experience has been the biggest contributor to my success after graduating from CSU.

“I hope the fellowship can also serve as a reminder to students to seek out the college’s many world-class researchers to enhance their education experience – and, if they happen to be as lucky as I was, also find a mentor who will help guide them in life.”

For Levinger, Kung’s gift was completely unexpected.

“This fellowship is totally remarkable,” Levinger says. “Shocking and humbling.”

And while Kung’s remarkable gift came as something of a surprise, his rationale for recognizing Levinger did not.

“Dr. Levinger is an extraordinary scholar who is dedicated to our students and their success,” says College of Natural Sciences Dean Jan Nerger. “She is a Colorado State University Distinguished Teaching Scholar and represents the best of the best for her teaching, scholarship, and mentoring efforts. This fellowship award aptly honors Dr. Levinger for her unwavering support for undergraduate research and excellence.”

Kung looks to the future hopeful that the College of Natural Sciences can continue to provide experiences like the one he had.

“I hope the CNS can further encourage professors to teach beyond the classroom, get students involved in their research, and provide the critical networking and working skills that will help students achieve a better life.”

The Nancy E. Levinger Undergraduate Research Fellowship is quite a start.

Donation information

To contribute to the Nancy E. Levinger Undergraduate Research Fellowship and make your own mark on student research, click here[].