1/21/2015 Peter Durantine

Solar Energy Research Makes Chemistry Professor a Rising Star

A pleasant surprise greeted Associate Professor of Chemistry Kate Plass at the exit of 2014.

The American Chemical Society informed her that she was a recipient of a 2015 Rising Star Award, presented annually to 10 women who make exceptional contributions in the field of chemistry.

Plass, who joined F&M in 2007, focuses her research on improving solar energy technology. Two former students, Mona Lotfipour '12 and Jolie Blake '11, nominated her and submitted the application on her behalf.  On March 23 Plass will accept her award at the society's national meeting in Denver, Colo.

The recognition of female chemists is important, she said, because women's interest in chemistry tends to peter out in the years between middle school and college. "The pipeline is leaking along the whole way," Plass said. "We lose students in middle school as soon as they get the impression that science isn't what girls do. They would have been capable, but they just kind of lose interest and don't follow through. Then some students get to undergraduate classes and they think, 'Oh, this isn't the place to be.'" 

  • "I wouldn't say students contributed to my research," said Associate Professor of Chemistry Kate Plass, here working with sophomore chemistry major David Mix. "They did it themselves. They are the ones actually in the lab. Without them it simply wouldn't happen." Image Credit: Melissa Hess

Plass said the proportion of women leaving science is higher than that for men, but she has seen improvements. "F&M, for example, has a pretty remarkable male-to-female ratio, particularly in our chemistry department" Plass said

In this occasional feature called "Three Questions," Plass discusses the award, her research, and the significance of student research in the liberal arts experience.  

Why is the Rising Star Award important?

It is an attempt to bring recognition and attention to people who have demonstrated that they are doing good work. You get the Rising Star Award, you go to the American Chemical Society meeting, and there is a session where all the people who received the Rising Star Award give talks. It's also a reminder that there are some very good female scientists out there -- and that is not a trivial matter to bring to people's attention. I have read that when people are hiring or thinking about giving awards, they tend to think of men first. If you just remind them about women, they can come up with many names of really good people who are totally qualified and who they would love to have.

What does your research involve?

My research centers on solar energy technology. We are looking at specific materials that will turn solar light into a kind of a chemical energy, or excited electrons. If you take these electrons out of the materials, that's electricity, but you can also cause a chemical reaction at the surface of some of these materials and convert that light into chemical energy. It's the solar harvesting of all sorts of energy conversion. We're looking at materials that absorb that solar energy, minerals such as chalcocite, a copper sulfide.  You can mine it, and we have plenty of it. It is very efficient at getting as much of the energy out of sunlight as possible, but then it has issues, such as how stable is it. That's the kind of problem we are working on.

How have students contributed?

I wouldn't say students contributed to my research. They did it themselves. They are the ones actually in the lab. Without them it simply wouldn't happen. They are the ones physically carrying out the experiments, they're doing analyses. We then talk about the data and ask, 'Ok, what does this mean and what new experiments do we need to do based on that?' That's part of why mentoring is so important. They can't do that without mentoring.

On a bigger scale, this is the best education they can have -- getting into situations where there is no right answer in the back of a book. We have to sit there and figure out, 'How are we going to design this experiment as best as we can? How are we going to carry it out the best we can? How are we going to look at the results and ask what part is meaningful?' When all you have to depend on is your brain, it's hard. You have to learn to be critical of yourself, in a good way. You have to learn to say, 'Ok, I think this is going to be an issue, but I don't understand it, so I'm going to go read some papers and then I'm going to think about it again.' That's where the students are learning how to think on a different level. One of my students told me that what he learned most from research was that not only was it OK to fail, but that you have to fail. That's an important life lesson. 

  • Associate Professor of Chemistry Kate Plass says the recognition of female chemists is important because women's interest in chemistry tends to peter out in the years between middle school and college. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
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