The magazine for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Iowa State University

Doing what he loved

The only concern biochemistry student Rob Stupka had while planning a never-done-before undergraduate research symposium at Iowa State was if the event would be successful enough to continue. He wanted the symposium to have a long-term impact for future students, his friend Adam Krupicka remembers.

That was 2005. Ten years later, the annual Stupka Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) has gained momentum, and continues to honor the student who started it all.

“Rob would be so excited and proud that the symposium is as strong as it is 10 years later,” said his friend and fellow symposium planner, Krupicka. “He remains the cohesive factor that keeps it going.”

Rob tragically died in an accident in the fall of 2005 while on his way to class in the Molecular Biology Building, just months before the first symposium that he was working so hard to plan. From the beginning, Rob wanted it to be an event that brought people together in pursuit of science.

Following his passion

Even in elementary school, Rob was interested in science.

“He tried sports but was not really athletic,” said his father, Bob Stupka. “It didn’t make him sad. His focus way back was science.”

That focus was further confirmed in high school, when Rob chose to take a second science class during his senior year when he could have taken study hall instead.

It was no surprise that Rob pursued biochemistry at Iowa State University. The major requires mastering complex material in the sciences. Right up his alley.

He also was the type of person that wanted to bring people together, and he had a knack for it, said Krupicka.

“He was always so infectious to talk to and was always excited about something,” he said. “He had a ‘why not’ attitude.”

"Rob was one of those lucky kids that was doing what he dreamed of doing.”

Rob and Krupicka were two of just a handful of students who planned that first symposium from scratch. They contacted speakers from around the country and asked them to come to ISU to present their scientific research, and publicized the event to ISU faculty and students with the goal to get them more connected.

“One thing that we kept coming back to was getting more interaction between students and faculty,” said Krupicka. “It was important to Rob to help facilitate an environment with more cohesion.”

After Rob passed away, Krupicka and his fellow students dedicated the symposium in Rob’s honor. There was no question that the event embodied everything about him.

The lecture halls were full, Krupicka said about the first symposium. “It was all the result of everything Rob had done starting 14 months prior. To see it all culminate into such a success was really cool.”

This past April, students and faculty filled the lecture halls again for the 10th annual Stupka Symposium, a two-day event that featured the return of former Stupka Scholars and committee members from the last 10 years.

The event has remained what it started as a decade ago – an opportunity to bring people together for the purpose of scientific investigation. It is still completely organized by undergraduate students.

“The symposium would not be what it is today without student energy, dedication and involvement,” said Desi Gunning, BBMB undergraduate advising and teaching lab coordinator. Losing Rob led her to become even more involved with the students in BBMB.

“Ten years have passed, but I still feel Rob’s energy within the walls of the Molecular Biology Building,” she said. “His story is now integral in the history of the department and we are stronger because of him.”

Bob and Diane Stupka have attended each symposium.

“The worst thing was losing Rob,” his father said. “One of the best things is that the symposium is still going and gets bigger and better all the time.”

For the last seven to eight years, the students planning the symposium never knew Rob, his father added. “To see them on the same path as Rob makes us feel good.”

Making a difference

Rob’s impact on campus goes even further than the annual symposium. He also jumpstarted the biochemistry club, which continues to be an active student group.

His parents established the Rob Stupka Memorial Scholarship for students in biochemistry, biophysics, or agricultural biochemistry who are conducting high quality research and hold leadership roles in the club or the symposium. Eighteen scholarships have been awarded so far.

“We get touching letters from the students,” said Bob Stupka. “I think knowing they got the scholarship in Rob’s name means more to them than the money. It’s a big deal to them.”

One of the notes in Rob’s journal that stands out to his family ends with ‘Make a difference. I will.’

“He knew that he would,” Bob Stupka said. “He loved his studies and he loved Iowa State. Rob was one of those lucky kids that was doing what he dreamed of doing.”