Chain Reaction: NSF Programs Are Initiators of Chemist’s Success

Author Jennifer Bento is a graduate student in the Polymer Program at UConn in the research group of Chemistry Professor Doug Adamson. In her reflection below, Jen describes the implications on her career path that resulted from her participation in the UConn chemistry REU program. She connects this experience to choosing UConn for graduate school, and her subsequent success in garnering a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

I received my undergraduate education at Simmons College in Boston where I earned a B.S. in Chemistry and Physics in 2011. During my undergraduate career, I was a teacher’s assistant, a study group leader and an ambassador through Beyond Benign in a Green Chemistry Fellowship program that performed outreach at local Boston public schools. As a Beyond Benign fellow, I was able to work with undergraduates at my institution and meet fellow scientists at local colleges and/or universities in the Boston area. Together we performed hands-on activities with students in grades K-12. I hope that our efforts motivated the students to continue their education in STEM fields. I also helped students at Simmons learn organic chemistry in my role as a TA/study group leader. These fulfilling experiences with students have inspired me to pursue a career as a college professor. My research advisor at Simmons, Dr. Richard Gurney, encouraged me to apply to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program sponsored by the NSF to gain further research experience at a PhD-granting institution and to get a sense of what being a graduate student would feel like. I applied and was accepted to the UConn Chemistry REU the summer before my senior year of college. UConn was able to offer exciting research with a successful REU student track record. 

Throughout that summer at UConn, I worked in Professor Doug Adamson’s lab; Chetan Hire, a second year graduate student in the Polymer Program, was my mentor. My REU project used a bio-mimetic polymer, poly(hydroxylated butadiene-b-2-vinylpyridine), as a template for the condensation of titanium iso-propoxide to form nanostructured titania. Our choice of polymer was inspired by the naturally occurring enzyme, Silicatein α. This enzyme, which catalyzes biosilicification, was isolated from the marine sponge Tethya aurantia. Nearly all hydrolysis of tetraethoxysilane (TEOS), leading to silica formation, is done at low pH. Our mimic block copolymer structure was based on the two amino acid residues shown to be key for hydrolysis of TEOS under ambient temperature and near-neutral pH by Silicatein α. Our mimic successfully catalyzed and templated the structure of condensed titania with a future application in making a more efficient alternative for a dye-sensitized solar cell. At the end of the program, I communicated my research results in an oral presentation and at a poster session. In addition, I presented a poster at the 241st American Chemical Society (ACS) Conference in Anaheim, California in March of 2011. In February of 2013, we published a paper titled, “Directed formation of silica by a non-peptide block copolymer enzyme mimic” in the Journal of Materials Chemistry B that incorporated some of the work I had done during my time as a REU participant. To have witnessed the work mature from my initial experiments into a full paper was absolutely fascinating and gratifying.

During the REU program I learned new laboratory techniques and used instruments such as a vacuum line, Thermogravimetric analysis (TGA), Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy (FESEM) and Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM). I was able to practice communicating my research during weekly group meetings in Dr. Adamson’s group, a poster and oral presentation at the end of the REU program and at a national scientific meeting. I looked to my labmates as role models and yearned for similar opportunities. As I finished my REU experience, the laboratory techniques I had acquired as well as the bond I had formed with my fellow researchers and professors confirmed my decision to attend graduate school, with UConn being very high on my list.

Indeed, I got accepted and in the fall of 2011 I enrolled in the Polymer Program at UConn to pursue a PhD. I joined the Adamson laboratory and have been working on the synthesis and characterization of polyamide membranes with unusual geometries for desalination applications. The scarcity of clean water is a global issue, and desalination is a promising approach as a partial answer to this shortage. These membranes are hypothesized to have advantages over current thin film composite (TFC) membranes. I am currently a third year graduate student and have passed my written and oral exams to become a PhD candidate.

 During my first year in the Polymer Program, Professor Adamson encouraged me to apply for graduate fellowships. He said it would provide experience in writing proposals. A funded proposal would give me an enormous freedom to pursue my own research. Among others, I applied to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), the country’s premier graduate fellowship program. Out of about 13,000 applications, 2,000 awards were selected. The NSF application included a personal statement, a previous research essay and my PhD research proposal. My undergraduate and graduate school transcripts were also reviewed. After applying in November of 2012, I was notified in April of 2013 that I was awarded an NSF research fellowship that will provide funding for three years of my graduate work. Receiving this fellowship is personally very rewarding. The many years of preparation, the dedication to research, the multiple outreach activities, the definition of a realistic and important research goal – it all came together. I am truly honored.

I believe my undergraduate training at Simmons as well as my REU experience at UConn have led me down this demanding but rewarding path of higher education in Polymer Science and Engineering. After finishing my graduate studies, I plan to continue my career as a post-doctoral fellow and eventually become a faculty member with my own research lab. I will create programs and clubs within my department to get students involved in research and outreach.