MCS Alumna receives prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in nanoparticles

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

“I’m over the moon about it,” Katherine Elbert (Master of Chemical Sciences ’16) beams about earning a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. “It’s a great opportunity and one that most people don’t get. The NSF gives you the tools to be able to do the work you’re passionate about. It feels really validating that they think I can do this.”

During Katherine’s cycle, the NSF received more than 13,000 applications, and she became one of only 2,000 people across all science disciplines in the US to receive the award. “I think slightly more than half of the recipients this year were women,” she points out, “In science, it’s hard to get recognition for your work, and the NSF is trying to help push women forward.”

Katherine is using her funding to complete a PhD in chemistry at Penn under Dr. Chris Murray, the Richard Perry University Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering. She explains, “Broadly, my research is based on developing novel ligands (molecules that bond to metals) that can be placed on the surface of nanoparticles to tune the properties of the nanoparticles. To put ligands on a nanoparticle, they have to have a binding group that will bind it to the nanoparticle, and that binding group can be specific to different metals. For my NSF, I proposed a molecule that has two different binding groups, so it will bind to two different nanoparticles.”

What makes Katherine’s work stand out in the field of nanoparticle science is that “Now, if you want to mix two kinds of nanoparticles, there’s no way to control the architecture of what they form, and that’s what I hope to go after in my research.”

For the NSF fellowship, having an exciting topic is just the beginning for a successful application. Along with stellar academic and professional records, Katherine notes “The committee looks at your previous experiences to see how your past can help you finish your research. They want to see that you can do it.”

While Katherine was a student in the Master of Chemical Sciences (MCS) program with a concentration in materials, she presented her capstone project at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) national conference. “I was lucky enough in my undergrad at Haverford College that I worked on a series of projects that turned into publications. When I came to Penn, MCS’ Associate Director Dr. Ana-Rita Mayol became a support system for me and she was the one who helped me get into ACS. Those experiences showed the committee that I can see a project through.”

It was during her MCS studies that Katherine began to work with Chris and his research lab which focuses on developing nanotechnology for a variety of applications, particularly renewable energy technologies. Nanoparticles are key to research in batteries and energy storage, hydrogen power, solar panels and semi-conductors. “I followed Chris’ work before I came to Penn,” Katherine shares, “Being able to work with him was a dream come true for me because he’s done a lot of work with quantum dots and getting different nanoparticles to make different architectures. In fact, when I found out I won the NSF award, he was the first person I told.”

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