Anna Plonka Q&A: Creating Compounds to Sequester CO 2
Anna Plonka, a 2015 recipient of Stony Brook University’s distinguished doctoral student award, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Geosciences Department. Her research, which explores molecular-level interactions between various gases and solid absorbents, has implications for carbon dioxide sequestration and pollution control.
Her lecture at the 2013 American Crystallographic Association annual meeting won the prestigious Margaret Etter Student Lecturer Award. She’s authored 12 peer-reviewed articles and forged collaborations among Stony Brook University, Argonne National Laboratory, and Berkeley Labs.
Stony Brook University Graduate School (SBU GS): How did you first get interested in geosciences?
Plonka: For as long as I remember I was interested in rocks and minerals. As a kid I collected stones and crystal, read natural history books, and dreamt about foreign travels. At school, mathematics and geography were my favorite subjects. So when it came the time to go to college, choosing my major was pretty obvious.
SBU GS: What excites you about your work?
Plonka: I really enjoy working with crystals. I love their symmetry, elegance, and mathematical precision. There's a lot of fun with making discoveries, creating new compounds, and learning about their properties – but solving the structure is still something that gives me the most excitement.
SBU GS: What have you found challenging?
Plonka: I am foreigner, so adjusting to grad school was one thing, and adjusting to life in U.S. was quite a different story. I obtained good training from my college in Poland, so as far as science was concerned, I have never had major problems. But living in foreign country, getting used to the language, food, driving your car all the time – that was quite a challenge. But I was always curious about the world, so I tried to treat it all like an adventure. And in fact it turned out to be an amazing adventure!
SBU GS: Your research has implications for carbon sequestration. Can you explain what those implications are?
Plonka: We are trying to develop new compounds that can bind and sequester carbon dioxide. We often hear about global warming and attempts to limit CO 2 emissions from coal-based power sources by transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. But the truth is, it is probably impossible to transition fast enough to avoid major changes in the Earth’s climate. People produce a lot of carbon dioxide and will produce even more, especially in quickly developing Asian countries. It’s likely the only way to reduce CO 2 levels quickly enough to avoid major changes to the climate is to develop filters that can trap CO 2. That way, instead of going into atmosphere, CO 2 could be stored underground. It sounds pretty simple, but it's quite challenging. We are trying to develop materials that could selectively bind large amounts of CO 2 for use in a new generation of filters so, even if we continue burning fossil fuels, we could limit emissions. We still have a long way to go but it's definitely worth working on!
SBU GS: What’s next for you after graduation?
Plonka: I would like to stay for some time in my current lab to finish my ongoing projects, and then I am applying for postdoctoral positions. Ideally, I would like to work in Brookhaven National Lab. It's an amazing place with top-level science and an incredible atmosphere. Especially now, when they have opened a new facility – NSLS-II – it is a place you want to be. I've already started to write the applications; wish me good luck!
SBU GS: What courses or experiences – outside of your direct program area – have you found most valuable in informing your research?
Plonka: You can learn a lot by interacting with other people. Conferences, group meetings, discussions with other researchers – all of these connections help a lot in becoming a better scientist. We cooperate a lot with people from other departments – Chemistry, Physics, Material Sciences – as well as people in other labs, including Brookhaven National Lab and Argonne National Lab in Chicago. One of the great things about Stony Brook is that it gathers so many top-level experts from different fields. Every time I worked with them, I learned something new.
SBU GS: How has your program at SBU helped equip you for success?
One of the great things about Stony Brook is that it gathers so many top-level experts from different fields. Every time I worked with them, I learned something new.
Plonka: I think SBU has an amazing program for people interested in geosciences. Even if you don’t have a background in geology, the professors teach you how to quickly become familiar with the topic. They give you the essential knowledge, as well as access to the wide range of labs and facilities. You can do whatever you like: study Mars, solve crystal structures, or study earthquakes. The rest depends on you: how hard you work and how interested in topic you are.
SBU GS: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a graduate degree in geosciences?
Plonka: Go for it! I doubt that there is any other field that gives you so many opportunities when you graduate. You can work in the field or sit in a comfortable office. You could be a university professor, industry scientist, businessperson, or Arctic explorer. Whether you're an extrovert, introvert, computer geek, or daring adventurer, geosciences has something for you.