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Students Zac Faitz (Zanni Group, University of Wisconsin-Madison), Autumn Bruncz, Sadie Brasel, and Eric Gomez (Link Group, Rice) have been awarded 2023 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships! Each of them are valuable members of our Center, and they come from distinct backgrounds that shaped them into the scientists they are today.
Zac’s interests in chemistry and math were inspired by his STEM family, who had him take part in simple experiments and exposed him to machining. During his first year of undergraduate school, he joined a computational biophysics group where he worked on simulating protein-ligand interactions between SHP-2 tyrosine phosphate and proposed inhibitors using Steered Molecular Dynamics (SMD). During this time, he learned the importance of troubleshooting errors, overcoming these obstacles through novel approaches. He later joined a newly formed physical chemistry lab where he had to learn how to conduct effective research with less available resources.
Recalling his own early exposure to STEM, he was invited to create and perform demonstrations for middle to high school students at his former high school. He has also participated in outreach programs elementary through high school students.
Since he joined the Zanni Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Zac has learned more about ultrafast spectroscopy to study both organic and inorganic semiconducting materials. He even planned, built, and coded the software for a new 2D photocurrent (2D-PC) spectrometer. His goal is to further our understanding of photovoltaic devices by elucidating which pathways generate usable photocurrent and which pathways result in exciton recombination. To accomplish this, he has proposed a new method to simultaneously acquire photocurrent, multidimentional white light, and photoluminescence spectra of working photovoltaic devices. This method would measure the same spot for each spectrum efficiently while reducing the chances of destroying devices susceptible to photodegradation. If successful, his method would lead to the creation of more efficient devices that use semiconductors.
“[I] can attest to the impact of strong role models in the lives of future scientists, something I will keep in the forefront of my mind during graduate school as I work with students and children and when I am a professor guiding the next generation of scientists in the classroom.”
Sadie always wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the math and science concepts she learned, but found herself excluded from the discussions her male classmates were able to engage in. She developed imposter syndrome that followed her into her undergraduate career at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Despite this, she switched her major from dance to electrical engineering to find a way to apply her knowledge toward bettering the world. She even joined the Women in Science group and found the positive mentors and peers she needed.
She took her first step into academic research when she joined the Caruso Research Group to study novel antenna designs using computational electromagnetic solvers. The independent research skills she learned helped her lead a team create a prototype, lab manual, and programming interface for a project as part of the 2021 Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) design contest. She then held industry internships with Burns & McDonnell and SS&C working on network communications. Her experiences served to inspire her passion for plasmonics, which utilizes her interest in E&M theory toward applications in fighting climate change.
Sadie joined the Link Lab at Rice University to continue exploring plasmonics and moved from computational techniques to single-particle spectroscopy. Her current research is on detecting plasmon enhanced charge transfer with GHz acoustic vibrations for photovoltaics to reveal direct and sequential charge transfer efficiencies through correlated single-particle domain and frequency domain measurements and compare with device yields. She hypothesizes that observing the remaining heat in single metal-semiconductor nano-heterostructures with acoustic vibration lifetime measurements will provide novel strategies for determining charge injection efficiencies. The resulting insight into relative charge transfer efficiencies for on vs. off plasmon excitation could bolster further development of plasmon-based photovoltaic devices to be used in solar energy production.
“[I] am committed to actively fostering inclusive environments in STEM spaces through all aspects of my career including outreach, education, and research.”
Autumn struggled to understand math and science concepts as a child, and was told by high school teachers that her math skills would never allow her to have a career in STEM. It wasn’t until she began taking calculus, and later chemistry, that she began to excel and prove those teachers wrong. At the University of Montevallo, she persevered in her first undergraduate physics course to understand Newton’s laws of motion. This set off her curiosity about the world and allowed her to blend her interest in math and chemistry, to the point that she eventually changed from a psychology major to a chemistry major.
She participated in a research experience for undergraduates program working with Prof. Joshua Caldwell at Vanderbilt University, where her research contributed to a publication in ACS Photonics and she presented with the Caldwell group at the South East Regional American Chemical Society. She went on to transfer to the University of Alabama in Huntsville to pursue further studies in optical physics graduated summa cum laude.
She went on to join the Link Lab at Rice University, where she now researches the characteristics of plasmonic hot electrons in gold nanoparticles. She seeks to use charge transfer of plasmonic hot electrons to elucidate their fundamental dynamics, and hypothesizes that the dynamics of charge carriers injected into a semiconductor can be correlated to the lifetime and energy distribution of hot electrons in the metal. Ultimately, she aims to promote the enhancement of photovoltaics and photocatalysis toward positive environmental impacts. The development of efficient photovoltaic devices will provide the means for a clean and renewable energy source, while plasmonic-enhanced photocatalysis will bring efficient environmental waste decomposition and practical water purification.
“I study engineering with an unfiltered passion, excited about the endless possibilities of what I could learn. This resilience and determination characterize my research career, not only as an engineer and scientist but also as a [woman] in a male-dominated field.”
Eric spent his early academic career in the medical science program of a predominantly Hispanic Title 1 school. Spurred on by the mentorship of one of his teachers, Mrs. Gurule-Leyba, he joined a state-wide science competition and interned in a hospital laboratory before enrolling at the University of New Mexico as a first generation student majoring in biochemistry. His initial test scores were low, he had to make up more pre-requisites that his classmates, and he had to work part-time jobs to support himself, but he was still able to join a chemistry lab under the mentorship of Prof. Terefe Habteyes at the Center for High Technology Materials, where he contributed to a paper that was published in ACS Photonics. Throughout his undergraduate career, Eric noted the lack of Hispanic representation in chemistry, so he aims to become a better communicator and mentor other underrepresented minorities.
When he joined the Link Lab at Rice University, he also joined FACETS (Facilitating Advances in Chemistry for Equity and Transparency for Scholars), an initiative that strives to promote diversity, representation, and inclusion in the Chemistry Department. In the same vein, Eric is currently a team member in the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) Pathways program, where he acts as a mentor for first-year URM doctoral students.
In his first year of graduate school, he mentored a community college student in his first year. He and the student worked on carbon dot identification in single-particle spectroscopy as part of the program’s water treatment focus. Eric’s current research still involves carbon dots, as he studies carbon dot emission via single-molecule emission and absorption spectroscopies. He hypothesizes that only some of the highly localized heteroatom-containing molecular defects near the surface of carbon dots are fluorescent. In developing a fundamental understanding of carbon dot emission, he hopes to set the foundation for intelligent design of tunable libraries of emissive carbon dots with high quantum yields and high photostability for applications in bioimaging (e.g. super-resolution microscopy, photothermal cancer therapy, photocatalysis, light emitting diodes, sensors).
“One of the defining moments in my life was getting into UNM. No one in my family had gone to college before and without the mentorship of my teacher I would not have gone either.”