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Dr. Sara Skrabalak is the James H. Rudy Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Indiana University. She received her B.A. in Chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was awarded the T.S. Piper Thesis Research Award for her dissertation research. Next, Sara conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Washington in Seattle before joining the faculty at Indiana University. Sara was the recipient of an NSF CAREER Award, the Department of Education Early Career Award, the American Chemical Society Pure Chemistry and Baekeland Awards, and she has also been named a Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar, a Sloan Research Fellow, and a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar. She was recently named a Fulbright Fellow in 2017. Sara is with us today to tell us all about her journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:28)
When she’s not in the lab, Sara likes to to take time to relax. She enjoys devising elaborate meals and spending hours in the kitchen creating the perfect dish. In addition, Sara spends her free time tending to her garden and traveling.
The Scientific Side (3:41)
As a materials chemistry research group, Sara and the members of her lab are dedicated to developing new ways to make nanoscale materials. They use chemistry to assemble atoms into defined structures that are about 50,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair, and they are interested in studying the shapes of these structures.
A Dose of Motivation (4:31)
Sara finds great motivation in a wide variety of music. There is always a song or album to match her mood and motivate her to pursue her interests. When she is having a down day, Sara might pick something heavy like Black Sabbath to get her moving.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (5:48)
During her childhood, Sara’s interests ranged from books to dinosaurs to space, and many topics in between. Her parents always supported and encouraged her curiosity. It wasn’t until high school that Sara developed an interest in chemistry with inspiration from an excellent chemistry teacher. As she entered college, Sara planned to major in art history and archaeology. After a year spent in a general chemistry course to fulfil her science requirement, Sara decided to continue exploring chemistry. Her chemistry professor was a key player in her decision, and she was excited to accept a research position in his lab the next year. Doing chemistry research as an undergraduate cemented Sara’s interest in chemistry and nanomaterials.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (18:28)
In the first few years as an assistant professor, it was difficult for Sara to deal with the constant failures that an early independent researcher faces because she was always thinking about the clock ticking down to the day it would be decided if she would be granted tenure. Having her success or failure directly tied to her ability to stay in the lab and keep a job that she enjoyed was really stressful. After many of the research projects Sara proposed failed in the lab, she had to come up with new ideas and new approaches to keep her lab running.
A Shining Success! (21:51)
Sara was recently selected for a Fulbright Fellowship. This opportunity will allow her to spend time at the Center for Biomaterials in San Sebastian, Spain during her sabbatical next year to learn about a new area of research. She is looking forward to working with a scientist there who has been very supportive of her career and her work. Sara has been to Spain previously, and she is excited to return soon.
Book Recommendations (24:09)
Epileptic by David B
Most Treasured Travel (26:12)
This past summer, Sara traveled to Arusha, Tanzania to participate in the Joint U.S.-African Materials Institute. It was her first time going to Africa, and she spent two weeks working with East African and U.S. PhD students in workshops and tutorials. She taught lectures on nanomaterials and their properties and also led a hands-on lab session where students synthesized nanomaterials. Sara’s experiences on this trip provided her with a new perspective on energy challenges, and working with students from a variety of backgrounds was a wonderful experience.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:01)
The structures of many of the nanomaterials Sara and her colleagues make are very beautiful. When a student graduates from her lab, she searches for a piece of artwork that represents their work to give them as a gift. Usually it is an item that captures the shape of one of the materials they worked on. Sara once tried to make the shape of one of these particles using origami. The night before graduation, she was desperately trying to fold the shape, and it just wasn’t coming together. The next day, she had to admit to the student and his family that she didn’t have his present ready, but she got a few laughs when she pulled out the half completed origami structure. Later, Sara was able to find an origami expert to craft the student’s gift.
Advice For Us All (33:59)
Be yourself. It’s important not to lose sight of your own personality and creativity, and these can enhance your science. Work hard, follow your dreams, remember there are many different paths in science, and see where the road takes you.
Sara received her B.A. degree in chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002 where she conducted research with Professor William E. Buhro. She was the recipient of the Sowden Award in undergraduate research from the Department of Chemistry. She then moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she completed her Ph.D. degree in chemistry in fall of 2006 under the tutelage of Professor Kenneth S. Suslick. There, she was the recipient of the T.S. Piper Thesis Award for her work on porous materials. She then conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Washington in Seattle with Professors Younan Xia and Xingde Li, designing nanomaterials for biomedical applications. Sara’s research group at Indiana University in Bloomington currently focuses on nanomaterial design and synthesis.