Riccardo De Cataldo can stand in front of a crowd in a sharp suit and go into a long explanation of how electron orbitals are like clouds – and it’ll make sense.
He’ll talk in measured tones explaining to an audience how a 3-D model of orbitals revolving around a nucleus of electrons represents the building blocks of life.
Some heady stuff. But that is De Cataldo.
He’s a deep thinker, a senior majoring in biochemistry who wants to become a doctor. Ask him about his love for science, and he’ll talk about the preciousness of life and the importance of helping others.
He started thinking beyond himself in high school. But he really embraced his altruistic philosophy at High Point University.
He’s a Presidential Scholar, a talented researcher and a member of five honor societies. He’s also the recipient of the John H. Mourane scholarship, an accolade awarded by the HPU faculty to the outstanding rising senior in chemistry or biochemistry.
This fall, De Cataldo has received another award: October’s Extraordinary Leader.
He discovered his intellectual curiosity 12 minutes from campus.
That was home.
The Impact of a Professor’s Conversation
De Cataldo moved from Italy to High Point with his family when he was 3, and he came because of what makes High Point proud – furniture.
His dad, Gaetano, works as the logistics manager for Natuzzi, an Italian furniture company housed in the building in downtown High Point that looks like a big ship.
Seems appropriate for a city known as the Furniture Capital of the World.
From kindergarten through 12th grade, De Cataldo went to Wesleyan Academy, a school a block from HPU. He came to HPU because he discovered professors who invest their time and talent with their students.
Take Dr. James Stitt.
He taught history at HPU for 47 years until his death last year. De Cataldo loved talking to Dr. Stitt outside Western Civilization class. He loved hearing Dr. Stitt turn dinners with his wife and time with his grandchildren into testaments about the importance of family.
De Cataldo listened. In doing so, those conversations broadened his view of science.
“We all have X amount of time on this earth, and we can invest our time to make it better or coast along or ruin it for the people coming afterward, but I would see that as a waste,” he says. “Life is something beautiful, something complex, something really, really fascinating. It’s too precious, and I want to invest my time to improve the world.”
“He Rises To The Challenge”
Two years ago, Dr. Keir Fogarty sent out an email to students and asked for volunteers to help him create 3-D models of electron orbitals. He wanted to turn them into teaching tools for HPU’s introductory chemistry courses.
Two students replied. One was De Cataldo.
Dr. Fogarty didn’t know De Cataldo. So, he asked his colleagues.
“Is Riccardo any good?” Fogarty asked.
“Heck yeah, he’s good,” his colleagues told him.
Fogarty brought him on. He wasn’t disappointed. De Cataldo worked. He even called up Fogarty and told him he’d found a conference in which they could present their findings. De Cataldo presented their findings at three.
This fall, in a rare move for any undergrad, De Cataldo will be the first author of a piece in which he and Fogarty will expand on the electron orbital project for the American Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education. Kaitlyn Griffith, a senior chemistry major, helped De Cataldo with research.
Fogarty wanted De Cataldo to be the first author because he saw De Cataldo as a good writer and a good communicator. Plus, Fogarty trusted him.
“I don’t need to prod him,” Fogarty says. “He’s a self-starter. I push him. But he rises to the challenge.”
Fighting Cancer, Finding Life
De Cataldo does love research.
He has worked with Dr. Heather Miller, a biochemistry professor, on tracking HIV proteins with fluorescence microscopy and watching it glow green to figure out ways to stop the HIV proteins from infecting cells.
Over the past two summers, He also has worked with doctoral candidates at Universita’ degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro. The university is a 15-minute drive from his family’s hometown in southern Italy, and De Cataldo has researched how cells metastasize in pancreatic cancer.
And what did he learn?
“You can manipulate them, but they are the bosses,” he says, laughing.
Finding Answers to Big Questions
De Cataldo is busy.
He’s a tutor, a mentor and the vice president of HPU’s American Chemical Society chapter. He also is a volunteer at HPU’s Piedmont Science Fair. For the past three years, he has showed local students through experiments how science can be fun.
And he is a drummer. He has performed as a percussionist with the HPU Pep Band and received six Millis Scholar Athlete Awards for his prowess in percussion and his excellence in the classroom.
After he graduates in May, De Cataldo plans to work as a medical scribe, prepare for the medical school exam and volunteer as a track and field coach. De Cataldo threw the discus in high school, and he’s always wanted to be a coach.
Then, De Cataldo will go to medical school to become a surgeon.
“When I ask myself, ‘What is the role of life? What happens when you’re gone? How have you impacted the world?’” he says. “My answer is that it needs to be good and positive.”