Julie Fenton, assistant professor of chemistry, discusses her unique perspective on the transition from graduate student to faculty member within the same department, as well her new lab's developing research and goals.
Kathryn: You were a member of the Schaak Research Group while obtaining your doctorate degree at Penn State. What was it like returning to Penn State as a new faculty member? How did your view of the chemistry department change from being a graduate student to now junior faculty?
Julie: I certainly have a unique perspective on the chemistry department at Penn State! I had a phenomenal experience as a graduate student in Ray Schaak’s lab (2014-2018). As a scientist, my research was enabled by the phenomenal instrumentation unique to Penn State, and by the quality of my student colleagues and faculty members, who were always available to collaborate or brainstorm with me. I also felt that the chemistry department is made up of great scientists who are also great human beings – high integrity, supportive, collegial, and kind. I was confident that this would be a great place to build an early independent career, and when the opportunity was available to me, it made a lot of sense to take it!
While it was a bit unusual to start my lab up here and sit on the other side of the table, it’s been a smooth transition as far as these things go. I am thrilled to be back and continue to contribute to the Penn State chemistry community. My view of the department is as strong now as it was as a graduate student, perhaps stronger. What has been exciting in my return trip is all the new faces that have joined in the interim, bringing with them new perspectives and renewed energy/enthusiasm. It’s the same place with a lot of the same great people, but with the addition of wonderful new faculty and staff.
Kathryn: How did the research you were doing as a graduate student in the Schaak Group and post-doctoral training at Northwestern University impact what you wanted to focus on in your own research lab?
Julie: In the Schaak lab, my research focused on developing synthetic tools for colloidal inorganic nanoparticles, aiming to break existing bottlenecks in the synthesis of complex targets. I primarily worked on cation exchange methods, which permit simultaneous control over all the important property-defining features of the particles: size/shape, elemental composition, and crystal structure. During my graduate work, we were able to apply sequential partial cation exchanges to form a large library of multi-component nanoscale heterostructured particles with a high degree of rational control.
As a postdoc, I joined the lab of Will Dichtel at Northwestern University and shifted my attention from inorganic materials to organic solids and polymers. My postdoctoral research was aimed at developing robust methods to synthesize, modify, and process crystalline porous polymers into functional thin films for membrane separation applications. Though the molecular sieving goal was not realized during my time in the Dichtel group, through these and related collaborative efforts, we were able to identify a different mechanism driving molecular separations in state-of-the-art polycrystalline polymer films.
So far, what I have found in my chemistry journey is that I am passionate about synthesis chemistry – whether that is accessing a fundamentally new material or developing a cleaner route to known targets. Though my supervised research experiences have been diverse in material targets (organic/inorganic, nano/bulk, etc.), this is a common theme running through them.
Kathryn: You mentioned that your group’s main interest is developing new synthetic materials at the interfaces of organic and inorganic chemistry. Can you explain that in more detail?
Julie: After spending some years working separately to synthesize organic and inorganic materials, there are some evident benefits and drawbacks to both classes. Inorganic materials are typically characterized by long-range periodicity and compositional diversity, permitting access to many types of crystal structures and tunable properties; but the synthesis of these materials generally lacks predictive control. By contrast, control over bonds and atomic-level organization is possible for many organic materials, allowing modular incorporation of targeted functionality and interesting properties, directional bonding, chirality, etc. However, organic materials have (generally) very limited long-range crystallinity/ordering, which limits the kinds of applications they are useful for.
My vision for my lab is to draw inspiration from both classes of materials to make new materials somewhere in between purely organic and purely inorganic solids, understanding the ways that organic and inorganic components interface with each other, influencing structures, surfaces, and properties. So far, our interests include colloidal nanomaterials (which consist of an inorganic core and a shell of organic ligands), with specific emphasis on the interface between the core and ligand shell at the surface, and hybrid organic-inorganic solids (which incorporate extended inorganic bonding networks and charge-balancing organic ions). We have plans to investigate polymer nanocomposites, designer adsorbents, and more... stay tuned.
Kathryn: Why is developing these new materials so important?
Julie: The questions and problems my group is aiming to address are fundamental in nature. We are not necessarily trying to build a new device or improve the efficiency of an existing one (though if/when we find useful things, we will explore these areas as well!). What really motivates us are the underlying synthesis questions: how do we access something fundamentally new? How do we understand the details of precisely what we have? Why did a particular structure form, and how can we drive the synthesis rationally towards another structure? These questions are sometimes treated as solved problems in the pursuit of application-driven research, though this is often not completely true. I believe that finding new materials with unique properties, efficient ways to synthesize them, and a deep understanding of how to expand the library of targets in a rational manner will help pave the way for innovation on the device/engineering side in the future, perhaps for problems we have not considered yet.
Kathryn: You’ve been a member of the chemistry faculty for about a year now and have assembled your first group of researchers. What sort of expectations or hopes do you have for the students and postdocs who have already joined or hope to join your lab group in the future?
Julie: When I am looking for new lab members, I am looking for enthusiasm and scientific engagement with problems and topics I’m interested in tackling. These “soft skills” are considerably more difficult to teach than hard lab skills, and difficult to quantify entirely. I have also been cognizant of building a cooperative team in my new group; every student is here to meet their own individual goals (degrees, job opportunities, publications, research progress). Our lab is new and young and faces different challenges than a more established lab does. It is useful to have a group that problem solves collectively and appreciates that the collective success of our whole group hinges on investment across the board.
My hope for my group members is that they can develop and build the skills they need to succeed as a professional in the future. In addition to becoming competent scientists, I hope to instill quality communication ability, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills that will translate to their lives outside of this lab, regardless of whatever personal aspirations may be.
Kathryn: Can you describe some of the interesting instrumentation you use in your lab? How important are these instruments to your group’s work?
Julie: My lab is equipped to do cutting-edge materials synthesis. When building my lab, I emphasized my group having access to tools and techniques that enable us to tackle many challenging synthetic targets with a range of options. We have several ways to do air-free chemistry (Schlenk lines, double glovebox), autoclaves to safely carry out solvothermal chemistry, high-temperature furnaces, ovens, glassware, and more.
From an instrumentation perspective, Penn State has phenomenal materials characterization infrastructure (particularly at MCL) that my group uses extensively. In selecting equipment to have in-house, I emphasized access to high-volume or frequent techniques that enable us to screen materials at a high level before investing more time or characterization efforts into samples (at MCL or otherwise).
One key instrument we obtained was a benchtop powder X-ray diffractometer, which is used to characterize crystalline solids. This instrument generates a beam of x-rays, which are directed towards and elastically scattered off a polycrystalline powder sample that’s loaded into the instrument. The scattered x-rays are collected as the source and detector angles are varied. Based on the angle and intensity of the diffracted signals, we gain a significant amount of information about our prepared samples. We screen just about every sample that is prepared in my group on this instrument (essentially, daily use for every group member). Its use is somewhat analogous to NMR for organic synthesis groups, and having one in our lab allows us to obtain key data without delay.
Kathryn: What was your most recent chemistry experience that inspired you?
Julie: I am consistently impressed and inspired by my group. It’s been fun to see their rapid growth over the last year, and to see their projects develop and take more ownership over idea generation and direction. The incremental gains day by day or week by week are hard to see in the moment, but when I think back to where we were a year ago, it’s night and day.
Kathryn: Looking towards the future...where do you hope to see your lab in 5 years?
Julie: This is an easy one – I know that we will do interesting research over the next several years, and find cool new materials, different synthetic pathways, interesting applications (and I am looking forward to this!), but I am much more excited about how my group will grow and change, and where my students will end up over that period. It is a huge privilege to work with and mentor a new generation of scientists, and I am excited to continue to help them develop as leaders and professionals, moving them towards their aspirations.