Revving Up Energy Research

July 1, 2015

In a quest that is crucial to our global future, scientists around the world are racing to find new ways to harness energy.

In a quest that is crucial to our global future, scientists around the world are racing to find new ways to harness energy. Penn’s founder Benjamin Franklin may have done it in 1752 with nothing more than a kite, a key, and some stormy weather, but the answers to today’s energy challenges require vastly more complex investigation across a large number of fields, including biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and earth and environmental science.

Penn Arts and Sciences has long worked to remove the traditional divisions between fields like these so its scholars can easily cross academic boundaries to push the scientific envelope. The School’s new faculty recruitment effort aimed at accelerating its energy research and teaching, as called for in its new strategic plan, is a perfect example of this. In a novel move called “cluster hiring,” the School’s science departments are working in concert to recruit three energy scholars whose work integrates biology, chemistry, and physics.

While the discoveries of these new faculty members may hold promise for the entire world, their work also will make a tremendous impact closer to home. Energy-related issues such as climate change and alternative fuels are of enormous interest to Penn students. The appointment of these additional scholars will help expand the School’s teaching and increase opportunities for energy research by undergraduates and graduate students.

The new faculty positions are being funded through a generous gift from former Penn Arts and Sciences Overseer David D. Elliman, C’73, WG’77, and his wife, Dr. Andrea Branch, through the Bawd Foundation. Elliman, who has been an advisor to many of the School’s other innovative science initiatives, including the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management, is greatly interested in energy and other areas of scientific research. The former biology major is the founding principal of the Elmrock Group of investment companies and is a board member of the Jackson Laboratory and Urban Electric Power, an early-stage energy storage company.

“Energy enables quality of life. The development of clean, accessible, inexpensive, and distributed sources of energy is a linchpin in the quest to improve living standards, especially in the less-developed world,” says Elliman. “The complex challenge of integrating new forms of generation, storage, and delivery is necessarily interdisciplinary and requires the collaborative approach embodied by this program.”

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jessica Anna arrived in July as the first Elliman Faculty Fellow. Anna’s work focuses on new approaches to the conversion of solar energy and spans the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics. Her research explores the interplay among vibrational motion, electronic energy transfer, and electron transfer reactions, as well as the role the environment plays in these processes.

“My research focuses on understanding the underlying mechanisms that govern the very first steps of photosynthesis—the absorption of a photon, transfer of this excitation energy, and the subsequent creation of a stable charge separated state,” says Anna. “Being at Penn has allowed for multiple collaborative opportunities with researchers in the School’s Departments of Chemistry and Biology and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.”

Caption: Jessica M. Anna, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Elliman Faculty Fellow, at right, shows graduate students (from left) Kristen McKibben, biochemistry and molecular biophysics; Yumin Lee, chemistry; and Martin Iwanicki, biochemistry and molecular biophysics, the optical layout and tracing beam path of the optical parametric amplifier she uses in her research on photosynthesis.