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Researcher of the Month

July 2019

Emily ChenEmily P. Chen 

Chemical Engineering, Applied Mathematics & Statistics majors; Chemistry Minor; Honors College, Class of 2020

Research Mentors:  Current:  Dr. Nancy Goroff, Chemistry; Previous:  Dr. Stanislaus Wong, Chemistry, Stony Brook University; Dr. Felix Fischer, UC Berkeley

Emily Chen, a senior Chemical Engineering and Applied Math double major in the Honors College, is the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Kenneth Nicholas undergraduate research fellowship award. Sponsored by Dr. Kenneth M. Nicholas and his wife Sacra N. Nicholas, the Dr. Kenneth M. Nicholas award was established to recognize an outstanding URECA summer research applicant majoring in chemistry (with preference given to students studying chemical synthesis or catalysis).*  For the last year, Emily has been working in the organic materials research group of Dr. Nancy Goroff to investigate “Shape-persistent macrocycles as hosts for Iodocarbons: toward formation of Carbyne.” She has presented this work at Chemistry Research Day on campus, as well as the American Institute of Chemical Engineering Mid-Atlantic Meeting (Penn State University, April 2019), ChemE Grad Expo (Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor, April 2019), and most recently the Gordon Research Conference on Physical Organic Chemistry (New Hampshire, June 2019).

Emily first developed her skills for doing chemical synthesis as a member of the laboratory of Dr. Stanislaus Wong (Department of Chemistry) in her sophomore year where she worked on mostly inorganic chemistry applications; and subsequently became drawn to doing organic synthesis work as an E3S Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) participant (summer 2018) at UC Berkeley, working in the laboratory of Dr. Felix Fischer at the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science: the REU program focused on lowering energy consumption for semiconductors. In fall 2018, Emily joined the Goroff group at the start of her junior year. She will be applying to graduate Ph.D. programs in chemistry, chemical engineering, and/or materials science in the fall to continue exploring the synthesis and applications of organic semiconducting materials.

Emily has been active as a Teaching Assistant for Organic and General Chemistry (CHE 152, CHE 331/332) and Applied Mathematics (AMS 261), as well as a Tutor for the Academic Success and Tutoring Center. She is the President and former PR Chair for SBU’s American Institute of Chemical Engineering, is on the Chemical Engineering Undergraduate Planning Committee, and is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computer Science. Emily also serves as an Honors College Big Sibling to mentor incoming honors college students, and volunteers at Stony Brook Food Pantry.

Reflecting on her varied research experiences, Emily offers this valuable advice: “Just ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to ask something that you might not think is the most intelligible thing. Don’t be afraid to be humble about what you know and what you don’t know.” Emily is a resident of Clifton Park, NY; her hobbies include cooking/baking, running, piano, violin, gardening and filmmaking. Below are excerpts from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

*Dr. Nicholas, an emeritus faculty member from the University of Oklahoma, graduated from Stony Brook in 1969 after carrying out undergraduate research in the Department of Chemistry. 

The Interview:

Karen. Tell me about your current research.
Emily. I work in Dr. Goroff’s group, and my role basically is to design and synthesize and investigate shape persistent macrocycles. We’re trying to form this material called carbyne –a carbon-based material that’s proposed to be a good semiconducting material. It’s an infinitely long single atomic chain of just carbon. Carbyne is difficult to isolate due to high reactivity between individual strands and non-optimal synthetic routes. So my project is aimed at identifying this elusive path for carbyne synthesis…

How we want to do it is to use a polymer that we study extensively in the Goroff group: PIDA—poly(diiododiacetylene). That’s a polymer that theoretically if you remove the iodines, you could form carbyne. But what we’ve found is that if we try to remove those iodines off of the polymer in solution, it will react with itself and it will form a different polymer rather than carbyne. So our strategy is to thread the polymer through a stack of rings – those rings are the macrocycles, and they will protect the polymer from reacting with itself. If we can find the conditions to remove the iodine using a lewis base, then we should be able to isolate a single strand of carbyne and protect it from reacting with itself or doing any other chemistry. The goal is to find a way to make carbyne, isolate it, and investigate it to understand more about it. It’s something that hasn’t readily been made.

How did you first get involved with research?
I actually started doing research in a completely different field –as a student data analyst working at the New York State Department of Health in the summer 2017. Then in my sophomore year, I heard about an opportunity to do research with a chemistry professor and I applied for it. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in Dr. Wong’s group for about a year, where I learned how to synthesize bismuth ferrite nanoparticles. I really enjoyed synthesis but I wanted to find an opportunity to do some organic chemistry. (I had just taken organic chemistry and really enjoyed it.) So I applied to an REU program at Berkeley.  And I got in and spent a summer there. That summer, I learned a lot about organic synthesis and techniques that you need to use. And then I joined the Goroff group after that.

Tell me more about the REU.
It was housed in the Center for Energy Efficient Electronic Sciences. The REU program and the center was completely focused just on trying to reduce the energy consumption of devices and electronics through approaches in chemistry, physics, and materials science. I was part of a group of about 8 to 10 students – and I was the only chemistry major. You got to interact with a lot of different students from different majors. They were all really great—all so interested in what they were studying and what they were researching and how they can apply what they learn in school to what they’re doing in lab. I loved the experience.

What is your favorite aspect of research?
I think it’s a little bit of a lot of different things. On the practical end, I like being at my hood and mixing chemicals and making something and wondering: did it work? Did it not work? …I also like thinking about how you can take pieces of what other people have learned and try to fit that to what you’re trying to learn as well. There’s a lot of consulting other works, but also trying to figure out: does that apply to what I’m doing, am I doing this in the most robust way possible?

Research is a huge challenge for me. I enjoy having something where I really have to work at it. You’re answering these questions that no one knows the answer to….And I think it’s really helped me to develop as a researcher to be able to ask bigger questions and try to find solutions. Being in the Goroff Group, Nancy has really helped me grow into a better researcher and scientist.

Have you had the chance to present your research?
I have. I presented here at SB at Chemistry Research Day last fall. That was a good experience because being able to share what you do and explain it to someone who doesn’t understand it also helps you understand it internally.  It helps to try to explain what you do to a wider audience rather than just your group members. It’s a skill, I think, that carries throughout the research career:  you always need to be able to explain what you do, how you do it and why…..

What advice do you have for other students?
I would say stick with it even if it feels like you don’t know a lot. Just ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to ask something that you might not think is the most intelligible thing. Don’t be afraid to be humble about what you know and what you don’t know.

…I think it can be pretty daunting to jump into research. There is some expectation that you should know things. But a lot of the times, you won’t know until you start learning, or find someone that you can ask the “dumb questions” to. Finding someone that you can secure confidence in, someone who you can always ask any questions regardless of what it is, even if you think it is a dumb question, is really valuable.

Was that a difficult thing to learn?
Earlier on, I would catch myself not asking questions, just writing it down for later….but a lot of the times, it really is humbling yourself and knowing that sometimes you don’t know the answer and it is just better to ask someone about it, rather than try to hide that you don’t know it or try to figure it out on your own without guidance. I think in school, work, or life in general, it’s helpful to have a buddy, someone you can trust to ask questions.

How valuable were the summer research experiences for you?
Juggling schoolwork plus lab work, plus whatever else you’re doing (such as jobs, leadership activities, etc.) – all this has definitely built my time management skills during the academic year. And that has been good. But I really like the summer because you get to just spend an entire day in the lab, when there’s nothing else on your mind.  There aren’t any time conflicts that you have to work around. You really just get to pour everything into your work in the summer. …My efficiency goes up 500%!