Published 29 June 2017 by Ulrike Böhm
Julie Fenton Loves a Challenge, Regardless of Scale
Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Julie L. Fenton
This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Julie and get inspired.
Julie L. Fenton, 25, from the United States of America is a Graduate Student & PhD Candidate in Chemistry at the Pennsylvania State University, US. She is working in inorganic/materials chemistry. Nanomaterials have garnered intense interest in the scientific community, due in part to their unique shape-, size-, and composition-dependent properties, and emerging technological applications that leverage these properties require nanomaterials with very specific architectures and well-defined characteristics. Colloidal synthetic methods are among the most effective for delivering high-quality inorganic nanomaterials with desirable properties in high yield. However, the complexities of solution-based chemistry limit the ability to predict and rationally target desired products, rendering some materials and morphologies of interest inaccessible. Her work has focused on developing new synthetic and post-synthetic modification strategies in order to produce inorganic nanomaterials with precise control over product morphology, elemental composition, and crystal structure in a variety of material systems. These advances allow them to access metastable materials, morphologic features, and/or complex heterostructures with desired physical and chemical properties, many of which are not amenable to previous synthetic methods.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
I have always had an interest in problem solving and puzzles – I love a challenge, regardless of scale. When I came up against my first chemistry class in high school, thinking about the world on a molecular level intrigued me, and I was hooked. To me, the chemical discipline represented solving some of the most complex and intriguing problems in the world, except that the answer was previously unknown. This was exciting to me as a young person, and the passion only deepened through higher-level study of chemistry through college, and now well into graduate school.
Who are your role models?
I have been fortunate enough to benefit from a number of fantastic mentors and role models, scientific and otherwise, throughout my life. My first (and best) role models have been my parents. Through a strong work ethic coupled with the highest value placed on integrity and respect for others, they have demonstrated to me what success in life looks like (which is not specifically linked to career success). Though my parents, who are not scientists, don’t always understand exactly what it is that I’m doing on a day-to-day basis, they are supportive at every step, encouraging me to be the best version of myself in scientific pursuits, but reminding me that the world is larger than just science, and that it’s important to stay grounded in my personal values.
Academically, I am grateful to have benefitted from and been inspired by too many people to name in this discussion, so I will name just two: my current graduate research advisor, Dr. Raymond Schaak, and my first research advisor as an undergraduate, Dr. Richard Schaeffer. These two have been phenomenally encouraging to me, helping me to develop and to think creatively as a scientist, while giving me the space to work independently on projects that I have cared about. Beyond that, they have modelled how one can balance the demands of a career in chemistry with other priorities in life. Conversations with these two have helped me to think broadly about the world and my place in it, going far beyond the expectations I could have asked for from an academic advisor.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I grew up in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA and did my undergraduate work in chemistry at Messiah College, a small school (~2800 undergraduates only) in Grantham, Pennsylvania, USA. During my second semester as an undergraduate, I began to do research for the first time… I was enthralled by the challenge of research on the cutting edge of science. Research gave me an opportunity to think creatively about the world and the ways in which it works, and my advisor (Richard Schaeffer) gave me ample space to explore and problem-solve independently.
I anticipate working toward developing mentoring programmes to help foster students’ interest in STEM fields at an early age
Like many aspiring U.S. scientists, I participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU), between my third and fourth years of college. As a student coming from a small undergraduate institution, this was my first opportunity to do research full-time, working alongside graduate students and primarily research-active faculty members. As such, this experience was amongst the most formative of my young life as a chemist, igniting a passion for academic research and scientific problem solving on the highest level that will never be quenched. Unlike most undergraduate researchers, however, my REU was conducted at the Université de Strasbourg in Strasbourg, France, affording me the unique opportunity to live and to conduct research outside of the United States, where I have lived, worked, and learned for my entire life. Even though significant language and cultural barriers existed between the French research group and myself, we forged relationships and collaborations through the common language of chemistry. This is where I first understood and appreciated the international impact that work in science can have: increasingly, we are participating in an endeavour that transcends our national and cultural boundaries, aided by the ease of communication and collaboration. It was (and still is) incredibly exciting to me to contribute, in some small way, to something much greater than myself.
These experiences propelled me into graduate school, beginning in the summer of 2014, where I have been ever since, and will continue to motivate me as I move into the next stages of my career. I’m currently working towards my Ph.D. in materials/inorganic chemistry at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, USA under the direction of Ray Schaak.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’m probably totally biased, but the coolest work that I have worked on is my current dissertation work. Although it’s really important to be able to control the way that atoms arrange themselves in solid-state materials (because the atomic arrangement, or crystal structure, dictates the properties), the typical high-temperature synthetic methods for making solid-state materials are often limited to obtaining only the most stable arrangements of atoms in a solid. By using a lower-temperature, solution-based cation exchange method, we can transform a performed material template into a material with targeted composition. Interestingly, these transformations can be accomplished with the retention of some qualities of the template material, including features of the original crystal structure, circumventing some of the primary difficulties encountered in traditional solid-state chemistry. Using this approach, we have been able to target and isolate some unusual crystal structures in a predictable fashion, which begins to point towards the ability to generalise these approaches for polymorphic structure targeting in solid-state chemistry.
I think the most exciting thing about chemistry (and science in general) is that the great breakthroughs can be serendipitous and unexpected
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
In different ways, I have found pride in sharing my work with others. Outside of my lab or the community of solid-state chemists, there is something really exciting about communicating the major points of my science to non-technical audiences in a way that appeals to them (without oversimplifying the science behind it), in formal presentations and informal conversations. Additionally, I have found great satisfaction and pride in seeing some of my efforts come to fruition in published form. Getting to a paper is a grind – it represents many hours in lab and many, many failed experiments, significant data analysis and interpretation, as well as the actual time spent writing the manuscript and putting together figures and data in a way that communicates the significance more broadly. It is exhilarating to contribute to the scientific community, even in very small ways.
What is a “day in the life” of Julie like?
I’m a synthetic chemist, so the majority of my work-life time is spent in the hood or nearby in the lab, weighing powders, pipetting solvents, heating/degassing a reaction, injecting precursors or decomposition agents, or cleaning and working up reactions. I spend “down” time reading papers, chatting science with my lab mates or advisor, or getting other work done (at the beginning of my graduate career, this was class assignments or grading for my teaching assignments… lately, it’s writing!). If I’m not in the synthesis lab, you could probably find me in the Penn State Materials Characterization Lab using one of the transmission electron microscopes (TEM) to take a look at the morphology of my nanoparticle samples, to analyse their crystal structures (using selected-area electron diffraction or high-resolution TEM), or to assess their elemental composition using STEM-EDS (energy dispersive spectroscopy) mapping.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
To merge my passion for chemistry and my desire to engage others in STEM, I plan to pursue an academic research career after completing my graduate work. As a young person, I had few female academic role models; as a professional, I anticipate working toward developing mentoring programmes to help foster students’ interest in STEM fields at an early age. I look forward to leveraging my career to help bridge the gap between technical and non-technical audiences and to increase scientific literacy at all levels of academia, politics and normal life. Thus far, I have observed and begun to appreciate the unique set of opportunities available to academic scientists: engagement with top-calibre colleagues, students and mentors, involvement with a built-in community of equally passionate researchers, opportunity to converse and collaborate across disciplines and institutions, and utilisation of cutting-edge instrumentation and laboratories. Leading scientists in top academic institutions enjoy the ideal setting for making discoveries, establishing meaningful collaborations and mentoring future generations of scientists. For an ambitious and creative scientist, academic research positions provide the latitude and flexibility to innovate, the environment to pursue individual research interests (sometimes several different ones), and the opportunity to truly impact the scientific world and the world at large.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I enjoy traveling to new places (or familiar ones), outdoor activities, reading, board games, and spending time with family and friends. I also make some attempts to cook, though I have found that synthetic skills in chemistry do not directly translate to cooking skills (although it feels like they should).
What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?
Although we live in a world of instant gratification and quick answers, progress in science is often quite slow. It requires a significant investment of time, energy and thought, and even with this discipline, projects stalling or hypotheses failing is inevitable in these disciplines. This can be discouraging to anyone, but particularly to young scientists. Eventually, progress is made: an interesting discovery, fresh eyes to interpret formerly frustrating results, or new ideas and hypotheses that can be tested and proven true, but this takes time. My advice is to keep pushing towards the goal of understanding, and to stay positive — try not to let temporary frustrations get in the way of that. I would encourage young women in particular to not be intimidated by male-dominated academic science. If you want it and are willing to work hard, you are capable of achieving every success in science.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?
I think the most exciting thing about chemistry (and science in general) is that the great breakthroughs can be serendipitous and unexpected – although we would like to know exactly where they will come from, we don’t and we shouldn’t expect to. As a materials chemist, however, I think some of the scientific discoveries with the potential for the greatest impact on society will come from the development of new materials. I expect that the next decade and beyond will give us numerous breakthroughs in materials for a wide variety of applications, particularly those important for solar energy harvesting, fuel cells, batteries, other electronics and beyond (perhaps for applications we haven’t even thought of yet).
We should continue to reach out to and encourage aspiring scientists as children and teens, and at the undergraduate level
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
This is a difficult question, and one that I think (rightly) is starting to be addressed at every level of academic training and careers. I think that we, as a community, are taking steps in the right direction towards an academy that looks more representative of broader society (including more women and other under-represented groups). While progress is good, this process will take time! 30, 40 and 50 years ago, the pool of trainees looked much different than it does today, which is still reflected in the way the academy (or even in high levels of scientific industry) looks today. I think it’s important not to do this artificially at the highest levels of science, but to build up to that slowly, over a period of time. We should continue to reach out to and encourage aspiring scientists as children and teens, and at the undergraduate level, and help to change the perception of what a scientist looks like and does. At the graduate level, mentorship is extremely important, as learning from the mistakes and triumphs of others who have gone before you is valuable for making informed decisions about your career (and basically everything else).