Our thanks to fruit fly impresario Claire Kotecki ( for her week sharing the life of a geneticist, communicator and academic. Scientists never seem to have only one role, and Claire’s many roles show the variety of the scientific life. You can follow Claire’s adventures on her regular account, @klarusu. We now head from the UK to upstate New York to meet our next curator.
Look around you for a moment. Chances are you are using something man-made: synthetic materials are everywhere in modern life. From backpacks to the surfaces of your smart phone are made from designer materials. Smart phones use glass that can respond to human touch and are stronger than regular glass, while synthetic fibres are generated to repel water and be unwettable. Portable insulin detection devices use strips carefully engineered so they hold a single drop of blood so it can go into the reader. All of these devices, and so much of the things we take for granted are the result of design, materials engineering and most importantly, chemistry. Materials are developed to make life easier to to made great devices. And that’s the kind of work that our next cursor, Jennifer Novotney (@CommonChemist), a PhD student at Cornell University, New York, is doing, with high performance polymers.
So what is Jennifer’s work about?
“My work focuses on the synthesis and application of a special type of material known as porous organic polymers. Polymers are all around us! They are in our clothes and plastics, and they make up remarkable materials like Kevlar. The types of polymers I make have a surface area up to 2500 m2/g, which is about the size of 1.5 hockey rinks folded into a single gram of material. I focus on utilizing the large free space for applications like explosives detection.”
It kind of sounds a little like bullet proof material but made for other purposes. How is such work useful, though, in a practical sense?
“We have all been frustrated by the time it takes to get through airport security. My first research project focused on creating materials that would detect vapors of the explosive TNT. So you could imagine creating a device that would sample the air around patients going through the body scanner at the airport that would identify the presence of explosive, without delaying passengers.”
I don’t know about you but I inwardly cringe every time I make it past security and people with way too many bags and devices and face the random explosives testing guy: chiefly because it means awkwardly waiting around to prove you’re not dangerous. I’m all for this device, really.
We asked Jennifer how she ended up in science:
In high school I had a wonderful chemistry teacher who included exciting labs into our curriculum. I enjoyed it so much I signed up for honors general chemistry at Western Washington University and from there I was hooked! I love the experimental nature of chemistry and the idea that my inventions could one day impact the world.
Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there? What do you like to do in your spare time?
I am actually in a transition period. I am finishing my PhD this semester and then transitioning into a career as a science communicator. I believe science communication is necessary to create a scientifically literate society, and I love talking about science!
I volunteer at the Sciencenter in Ithaca. I currently mentor a group of high school students to put on a bi-weekly chemistry magic show called Chemsations! I also help coordinate an outreach event for middle school girls every spring to get them interested in STEM fields
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I love baking and experimenting with new cookie recipes.
How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)
My ideal day off would start with a delicious brunch with friends. From there I would love to get outside, so depending on the season I would go skiing or for a hike. I would end my day either playing board games or getting lost in a good book.
So please welcome Jennifer Novotney (@CommonChemist), soon to be PhD, science communicator and awesome chemist, to Real Scientists!