Biochemistry faculty profile – Professor Chad Rienstra

Photo of Chad Rienstra
Professor Chad Rienstra.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

I grew up in western Michigan, attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then MIT for grad school with Robert Griffin at the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory. My PhD is in Chemistry (specializing in Physical Chemistry) but I also got an education in practical engineering there by building a variety of instrumentation, especially NMR probes along with machinists, electronics technicians, and physicists in the facility.

Where did you carry out your postdoctoral research?

Columbia University with Ann McDermott. I was a postdoc there at the time the New York Structural Biology Center was being designed and built and new instruments being delivered to Ann’s lab. That was my first experience with renovating a lab and installing commercial NMR spectrometers, so it turned out to be an invaluable training experience.

As a child, who was your biggest influence?

It’s hard to pick one. Most people would name a teacher or a coach, but honestly I would have to say Eric Vaandering, who was my best friend and in all the same classes that I had in math and science from 3rd grade to high school, including classes we took together in calculus and linear algebra at Muskegon Community College when we were high school seniors. Eric and I learned a lot from each other and always raced to see who would finish the math tests first and run up to the front of the room and drop them on the teacher’s desk (yes, totally obnoxious!) He is now a computational particle physicist who has worked at Fermilab and the Large Hadron Collider.

Why did you decide to study science?

I was dyed-in-the-wool pre-med when I started college and wanted to get research publications to fill up my CV to get into medical school. Then I had an amazing research experience one January with a visiting professor at Macalester, Colleen Byron (now at Ripon College). We were purifying an enzyme (glutaryl CoA dehydrogenase) over an ion exchange column and I ruined a large batch by using the wrong running buffer. She didn’t fire me.

Why did you come to Madison? When?

I was offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the solid-state NMR program at the National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison (NMRFAM) and to be a part of something much greater than my own research group. Officially I started in January 2020, but really the job started immediately after I agreed to the offer in July 2019.

What do you like most about being a professor?

I get to learn about new areas of science with every new collaboration.

What is the focus of your research?

My group develops custom NMR instruments and methods to solve longstanding problems in understanding how molecules work.

What do you consider your major accomplishments?

Completing my lab move from Illinois to Madison in one year during a pandemic.

What advice would you provide to a new assistant professor who is just starting his/her career?

Focus on your own students and research group. There will be plenty of time to serve on committees once you get tenure.

When you are not working, what do you like to do? What is your favorite place in Madison?

Golf and weightlifting at the Oaks Golf Course in Cottage Grove and the Princeton Club in east Madison, respectively. I also enjoy long walks with my family (wife Jenn children Elizabeth and Nicholas) and dogs (Rocky and Phineas).

Favorite Quote

“The secret to a happy life is to maximize the overlap integral of what you want to do with what you have to do.” – Prof. A. Truman Schwartz, Macalester College

Friends Describe Me As


Fantasy Dinner Guests

Bryson DeChambeau, Richard Feynman, Dwight Eisenhower

Best Advice I Ever Received


My Undergrad Alma Mater

Macalester College

My Worst Subject In School


If I Weren’t A Professor, I Would

Be a lawn care professional, preferably at a golf course

In College I Drove

My roommate crazy (because I didn’t have my own car)

Favorite Books

Anything by John Grisham, but I’ve spent most of my reading time in recent years on NIH proposals.

Favorite City


Favorite Movies

Good Will Hunting, Shawshank Redemption, Rocky I/II/III/IV, Bull Durham

Favorite Coffee

Colectivo Snow Day Holiday Blend

Current Research

Sociology of large facility management and multi-institutional collaborations

My Latest Accomplishment

Repairing an ultra-high frequency tube amplifier

Nobody Knows I…

Hold three Macalester College baseball records (complete games, season; innings pitched, season; innings pitched, career) that will probably never be broken. Not coincidentally, I have had two shoulder surgeries.