My family doesn’t come from an academic background – my dad finished mandatory high school at 14, and my mom decided to get her MS degree when she was 60 years old. But I’ve always been naturally curious.
When I was around 7, though, my best friend gave me this box called “The Little Chemist.” It was a chemistry set. I don’t think you could sell it today, because it’d be pretty unsafe, but it had test tubes and vials full of powders and liquids that you could experiment with to see how two substances react with one another, or how they would break some chemical bonds and form others. It made me realize that chemistry is everywhere you look. It forms the structures of humans and materials and anything else you interact with during your day.
Today, as a chemical engineer, I study the fundamental tools that accelerate chemical reactions or make them happen, and then use those tools to solve practical problems in the world. Imagine if we could take carbon dioxide – or CO2 – from the atmosphere and convert it into gasoline to power our cars. We’d actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since our fuel wouldn’t be coming from fossil sources. But getting there isn’t easy. We’d first need to break some really strong chemical bonds between atoms and stitch them back together in a different way, which requires a lot of energy.
I try to develop materials called catalysts that can help reactions like these take place using less energy. If we can find substances to do that, we’ll be polluting less, reducing global warming and helping to provide cleaner energy for the population. We’d be raising standards of living for the whole planet, while being able to make sure that we stay in an equilibrium with our environment.
That’s something I’m really passionate about. It inspires me every day – there’s never a sad Sunday for me because Monday is coming. I’m just excited about getting to talk to my students, collaborate with my colleagues and jump into doing science again.
That doesn’t mean I’m always successful. You have to be ready to accept failure and learn from it in order to find a solution that solves a big problem. Failure is just part of fundamental research, it happens all the time and it’s useful if you learn from it. Because then when you get something to work by learning from failure, it feels especially good.