JTC 24: From Aloha to Hotty Toddy

Ronnie Cunitz takes paths less traveled for her university, degree and future in chemical engineering

A young woman stands in a park.

This story is part of the 2024 Journey to Commencement series, which celebrates the pinnacle of the academic year by highlighting University of Mississippi students and their outstanding academic and personal journeys from college student to college graduate.

Veronica "Ronnie" Cunitz grew up in Makakilo, Hawaii, where she attended Hawaii Technology Academy, a public charter school, for high school. She succeeded in her early academic endeavors, skipping two grades, but ultimately longed for deeper learning.

While she was initially nervous about starting college a couple of years early, she was determined to find a good fit for her ambitions.

How she ended up 4,000 miles away from home in Mississippi?

Ronnie Cunitz uses a solid-phase peptide synthesis instrument at the University of Southern Mississippi during her Research Experience for Undergraduates project on targeted drug delivery. Submitted photo

"It's not as romantic as you might think," Cunitz said.

She looked for universities with generous financial aid and landed upon the University of Mississippi, which granted her a Stamps Scholarship, as well as membership in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and the Center for Manufacturing Excellence. The university's robust programs, coupled with the charm of the campus and town of Oxford, solidified her decision to pursue a bachelor's in chemical engineering at Ole Miss.

As if moving 4,000 miles away at 16 wasn't challenging enough, Cunitz also began her college journey during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She quickly adjusted to her new environment, citing the in-person classes offered by the Honors College and her involvement in Alpha Omicron Pi sorority as opportunities that helped her acclimate. She also has volunteered on weekends at the Oxford Animal Resource Center, helping care for the animals and giving back to the community that welcomed her.

The solid foundation she set helped prepare her to dive deeper into her field of chemical engineering through two summer research experiences.

A summer stint at the University of Southern Mississippi focusing on targeted drug delivery opened her eyes to the possibilities of research as a career, especially combining biology and engineering. Then, as a RISE scholar at the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the German Academic Exchange Service, the summer after her junior year, she worked on biopolymer aging and degradation, broadened her horizons even further.

I've shown myself that I can hold my own, even as the youngest person in the room."

Seeing the passion of graduate students and realizing how enjoyable research could be in the right environment, Cunitz began to consider a future in scientific research – a path she hadn't envisioned before, as industry routes are more commonly pursued in chemical engineering.

During her time at the university, Mike Gill, professor of practice in the School of Engineering, observed Cunitz's remarkable growth.

"Ronnie has worked as hard as any student I've seen during my six years at Ole Miss," Gill said. "She listens intently to feedback, processes it, asks clarifying questions and then incorporates it.

Ronnie Cunitz plays with a dog at the Oxford Animal Resource Center, where she volunteered over the weekend for the past few semesters. Submitted photo

"Ronnie started in chemical engineering as a 16-year-old and, four years later, she's as polished as most industry professionals with 10 years of experience."

Her work in the classroom also earned her the university's highest academic honor, a Taylor Medal.

Cunitz credits Gill with significantly broadening her perspective on the diverse opportunities in chemical engineering. Gill's down-to-earth approach and supportive guidance encouraged her to look beyond the traditional "ChemE" pathways.

"He reminded me that it's OK to be the only person to go to graduate school to pursue research," she said. "It's OK to go a different path."

He provided advice, encouragement and recommendation letters as Cunitz navigated options.

Always eager for a new challenge, Cunitz is excited about her upcoming transition to a doctoral program in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Her drive for research focuses on not only understanding the world around her, but also innovation.

At the undergraduate level, she mastered the basics of production; now she looks forward to developing novel solutions and technologies in her field.

Reflecting on her college experience, Cunitz appreciates the unique path she has taken. She feels proud to represent Ole Miss at an Ivy League institution. Her time at UM taught her the value of tenacity, growth and hard work.

"I wish I could have known freshman year how well everything would work out," she said. "I've shown myself that I can hold my own, even as the youngest person in the room.

"I know I've prepared myself as best I can for my next steps and I'm excited to see where I go from here."

See more photos from Ronnie Cunitz's Journey to Commencement


Kayla VonBurg-King, School of Engineering



May 07, 2024


Ronnie Cunitz

A young woman stands in front of a research poster.

Ronnie Cunitz presents her summer research at the national American Chemical Society conference in spring 2023 in Indianapolis. Submitted photo

A group of young people stands behind a party table decorated in pink.

Ronnie Cunitz (left) helps the events committee at a Valentine’s Day event for the School of Engineering. Submitted photo

Three young women show off award medals.

Ronnie Cunitz (left) and Macey Ross and Cameron 'Lainey' Hillman, both graduating seniors in biomedical engineering, celebrate being awarded Taylor Medals. Submitted photo

Two young women take a selfie in front of a castle.

Ronnie Cunitz (right) and Macey Ross, a graduating senior in biomedical engineering, visit Neuschwanstein Castle during Cunitz's summer internship in Germany. Submitted photo

A young woman in a red dress holds an award certificate.

Ronnie Cunitz was elected to Who’s Who Among Students at the University of Mississippi. Submitted photo

A young woman stands on a plaza in front of a large building.

Ronnie Cunitz visits Vienna during her summer internship in Germany. Submitted photo

Two young women in black dresses pose for a photo.

Ronnie Cunitz (left) and Lainey Hillman attend the Order of the Engineer induction ceremony. Submitted photo

A young woman holds an award certificate.

Ronnie Cunitz was named Panhellenic Scholar of the Year. Submitted photo