A source of more sustainable and cleaner energy may be in the future as a result of one Indiana native receiving funding to pursue her goals.
Sara Skrabalak, a 1998 Indiana Area Senior High School graduate, has received an $800,000 grant from the Department of Energy that will support a project to design a better catalyst for fuel cells.
This project, Skrabalak said, “will provide us with cleaner energy as well as energy security.”
The funding for this project is based on a proposal that Skrabalak said she wrote to enable what is called rational catalyst design for fuel cells.
“All proposals go through a process of peer review,” Skrabalak said, “where they are evaluated by several leading scientists in the field for novelty and potential impact as well as for the ability to conduct the proposed research.”
The research, she said, could help provide more sustainable energy platforms compared to what can be achieved with fossil fuels.
Her proposal was one of 61 selected from 770 applications.
In addition, Skrabalak has received a fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which provides unrestricted research funds to her program at Indiana University, where she is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.
Her current research group at the university is developing new synthetic methods to shape controlled solids and study the structure-function relationships of prepared materials as they are applied to energy applications, according to the university website.
Sloan fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as the next generation of scientific leaders.
“I have been working in the area of nanoscience, which concerns itself with materials that are on the scale of one billionth of a meter, or 50,000 times smaller than the width of a piece of hair,” Skrabalak said. In this size regime, she said, materials can display new properties that can be harnessed to treat disease and address energy needs.
“My research program provides new strategies to make nanoscale materials.”
In regard to the fellowship, she said, “it is a real honor to be recognized in this way.”
Skrabalak received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002 and her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006, but attributes her love of chemistry to her time in high school.
“My interest in chemistry started in high school with Mrs. (Ann) Parow as my teacher,” Skrabalak said. “She was excellent and explained chemical concepts with enthusiasm and provided special opportunities for students with interests in chemistry.”
Parow, she said, gave her confidence that she could excel in the field.
The Indiana Area School District also provided students with activities that allowed her to think outside the box, she said, like field trips and Science Olympiad.
Like many college freshmen, she said, she was undecided initially about what she wanted to study. By getting involved in an undergraduate research program at Washington University, she finalized her career decision.
“Research allows you to test your ideas and pursue your curiosities,” she said. “Sometimes you even get to observe something that nobody else has ever observed and that is really exciting.”
Her love of chemistry and her profession also contribute to a life of travel. She’s had the good fortune to travel abroad as well as through opportunities like conferences.
“A lot of my travels have been to other universities, where I meet with scholars at the hosting institution to learn about their work and give a talk on my group’s research.”
Skrabalak said that last year she visited Singapore for a conference composed solely of researchers under the age of 40 who were interested in the same sciences as her.
“It was great to meet the people behind the work I had been reading.”
In addition, she participated in a global research program that provided the opportunity for her and a graduate student to travel to New Zealand to establish an international collaboration with a professor and his students there.
They will continue this collaboration in the summer when Skrabalak and her student travel to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford.
“This was a wonderful opportunity scientifically, but it was also a lot of fun to travel through the beautiful country with my student,” she said. “I learned that besides being a great researcher, she is quite an explorer and can negotiate down the price of hostels with amazing skill!”
Skrabalak intends to stay in academia in a research-focused institution because of the independence and resources available to pursue her ideas.
“I also love teaching and working with undergraduate and graduate students, both in the classroom and in the laboratory.”