Her Material World: Jillian Buriak kicks off Chemistry Week!

We are super excited to kick off Chemistry Week here at Real Scientists with Jillian Buriak (@jburiak), Professor of Chemistry at the University of Alberta, in Canada. She is also the Canada Research Chair of Nanomaterials for Energy, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the American Chemical Society journal, Chemistry of Materials. Are you as excited as we are now? Good!


We asked Jillian about her scientific story so far, and here is what she told us:

I always loved astronomy, and got my first telescope (from Sears – so not exactly ‘stellar’) when I was 6. Later, with a better Newtonian reflector, I chased down most of the 110 Messier objects from a suburban backyard, sneaking out of the house at night. But, it was a fabulous high school chemistry teacher who sparked my interest in atoms, who even let me teach a few classes on introductory quantum mechanics after having read Schrodinger’s Cat. When I started as an undergrad at Harvard, I was planning on being a math major with a chemistry minor, but switched after second year to straight chemistry because research in the lab was just ‘so real’.

I did my Ph.D. in the area of catalysis, using metal complexes to help make chiral, more complex molecules. When I started as an assistant professor, I had a fabulous undergrad, who is now the department chair at Wayne State, who really wanted to get going quickly. My lab was still a pile of boxes, and so a project I suggested we start with, the use catalysis to functionalize silicon surfaces instead of molecules, took off and led to our first paper. We became known for materials chemistry and nanoscience, and so I just started learning by the old seat-of-the-pants, going to Materials Research Society meetings, and being taught by my own students about semiconductor science. It was exciting, scary, and absolutely hellishly fun. Now, the field of materials chemistry is growing like gangbusters, with new people jumping in every day – truly like an enormous sandbox (hey, sand is a material too!), with so many challenging problems to solve.

We work in the area of materials chemistry, in several subareas. Since the mid-1990’s, the chemistry of silicon surfaces has been a big topic in the group. While this area has gone through several phases since then, with different motivations popping up – initially it was molecular electronics, the idea of interfacing designer molecules with silicon to act as transistor/memory elements. Now, the big driver for the field is solar fuels research, the idea of using solar energy, captured through a solar cell, to either split water to clean-burning hydrogen fuel, or to reduce CO2 molecules to light hydrocarbons in a semi-carbon neutral carbon cycle. Stabilizing the surface of a silicon solar cell is critical to enable these chemistry, without making them too stable so that they do not prevent the chemistry you want from happening.

We also work on using block copolymers to self-assemble on surfaces to make interesting nanopatterns of use for computer chip architectures and high density memory. These polymers contain sufficient chemical information to ‘know’ what to do, under specific conditions, to self-assemble into patterns with little outside intervention. We also work on organic photovoltaics (plastic solar cells), new materials for solar energy capture and conversion, batteries and solar fuels, and when we are lucky, interesting problems through collaborations with chemical biologists.

Perhaps the most important outcome of all our research is the students themselves. The reason we began working on solar energy conversion was because in 2005 and 2006, students began knocking on our door, asking if we worked on solar energy. These were young people who were worried about the future of the planet, and so through bootstrapping those early projects, we got things going. Working on problems that are of deep interest to young people is critical so that they can learn what they need, to tackle the challenges of the world they are about to inherit. We are not cloistered in an ivory tower – we need to be relevant, and help young and motivated scientists be able to pursue their passions. Heck, our planet depends upon them. We also work with industry, both international and local, and these projects help the economy, and also enable students to work with companies and find employment.

My biggest obligation is being Editor-in-Chief of the American Chemical Society journal, Chemistry of Materials. We have 18 editors from around the world, a support team in North Carolina, a managing editor in Washington DC, and a huge job – carefully and efficiently handling 6000 submissions annually. I love this aspect of my life, and it can get extremely stressful at times, but it keeps me right on top of trends in the field, new emerging researchers, and is just downright fun.

I have been running for 39 years (oh my, that sure sounds like a long time). Kids are also definitely a ‘hobby’. I have trouble shutting my brain off, and so an ideal day would be to kayak down to the end of Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park (no phone, no wireless) with my husband and 2 teenage kids, and climb a peak, and just enjoy the views.

You can check out her website for more information: http://buriak.chem.ualberta.ca

Please welcome Jillian to Real Scientists!


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