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Spotlight on Nicholas Jackson, Chemistry PhD Student, Presidential Fellow, and Bluegrass Aficionado

Modified: May 5, 2015
Nick Jackson in his lab

Nick Jackson has certainly found his niche at Northwestern. The fourth-year chemistry PhD student is taking part in the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching Certificate Program, works with the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center and, last but certainly not least, was recently named as a 2015-2016 Presidential Fellow. Nick is so involved in the community that it comes as a surprise to find out that, when he was applying to graduate school, Northwestern was barely on his radar.

“I’m from the west coast. I went to college in Connecticut [at Wesleyan University], and after four years I wanted to get out of Connecticut as fast as I could,” Nick says. “I was adamant that I was going back to the west coast, and I got accepted to a bunch of schools in California. A week before I visited [Northwestern], I had almost clicked the ‘Accept’ button to one of them.”

Being on Northwestern’s campus quickly changed Nick’s mind. “It was just awesome! I loved the presence of the city, and I loved the fact that this was easily the most collegial and collaborative environment [of the schools I visited]. The graduate students just seemed nice and like people I wanted to hang out with.”

Nick was also impressed by his future advisor, Chemistry professor and current Weinberg Interim Dean Mark Ratner. “[Professor Ratner] wasn’t actually there, but I talked to some of his graduate students, and they told me to email him saying I was a prospective student, and give him my phone number. He called me three hours later. We talked for 45 minutes about everything imaginable: all the grad schools I was looking at and the pros and cons of each place, specific people I should talk to at each place, and the probability, based on where I was living in Connecticut, that my apartment had copper wire that was interfering with my phone’s signal.

“He was just incredibly nice, and the fact that he was totally willing to have me end up wherever was the best for me, whether or not I chose Northwestern, was great,” Nick added. His first impression of Professor Ratner turned out to be accurate. “He’s basically a dream advisor in a lot of ways. He’s really open and lets you work on whatever you want, and he’s very encouraging.”

Nick’s work focuses on making existing solar energy technology more affordable and accessible. “My research tries to take things made out of plastics – which are very flexible, cheap, and lightweight – and give them similar properties to what flat screen TVs and solar cells have, the ability to absorb light and make energy or project images. Basically, I’m trying to bring all the advantages of plastics to solar cells.”

Nick’s interest in his research began when he was an undergrad physics major at Wesleyan. “I worked on a very abstract physics project, and the applications were basically nonexistent,” he said. It was a professor in a chemistry class who introduced Nick to the idea of integrating electronics into plastics. “I was really impressed by the idea of having a TV screen you could bend, or having a solar cell as part of the fabric of your backpack, or wearable electronic clothing.” Despite his desire to return to Southern California, Nick applied to Northwestern because of the University’s strength in this type of research.

In addition to his work in the lab, Nick is currently working on completing the Teaching Certificate Program offered by the Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. “Teaching is the most fun I’ve had in graduate school. It has given me the opportunity to engage parts of my brain I normally never do,” Nick has taught both labs and lectures for his other advisor, Professor Lin Chen,.

For Nick, the teaching certificate program is a step toward his ultimate goal of finding a teaching-focused job. “I don’t think anywhere in my personality is an Research 1 University faculty job. I would love to be a professor at Wesleyan, or another small liberal arts school.” Balancing research and teaching is a priority: “I like research, obviously, it keeps certain parts of your brain working, but teaching is definitely the most fun.”

Another chance to stretch his role beyond research came when Nick was awarded a 2015-2016 Presidential Fellowship, one of The Graduate School’s most prestigious awards. “I ended up applying because my boss nominated me for the Fellowship,” Nick said. Despite knowing very little about the Presidential Fellowship when he applied, Nick is looking forward to the opportunities it provides: “The fact that you get to participate in a community with a bunch of smart people who aren’t in your field. It’s a nice change,” he said.

During his career at Northwestern, Nick has had the opportunity to develop his passion for teaching, and to connect with a community of outstanding scholars through the Presidential Fellowship. One thing he hasn’t managed to do, though, is to join a bluegrass band: as an undergrad, Nick played mandolin in a bluegrass group.

“It’s somewhat astonishing that Chicago has no bluegrass scene of any kind. It has lots of jazz, lots of Irish music, lots of blues, but bluegrass, not so much.” There’s hope however: “A couple months ago, a guy moved in across the hall from me who is in a bluegrass band, and they need a mandolin player.”

It seems likely that Nick will find his way into his neighbor’s band. After all, as he recently realized, his chosen career path is in line with his childhood dreams.

“My mom sent me a box full of stuff from my youth a couple weeks ago,” he said. “Among it was an essay I wrote in seventh grade that said, I kid you not, that my goal when I grew up was to get a PhD in physics from Cal Tech. I’ve just always been into science.”