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Emily Sprague-Klein, Spectroscopist and Concert Pianist

Modified: August 1, 2016
Emily Sprague-Klein

Emily Sprague-Klein, a doctoral student in Applied Physics, was interested in science and math from a young age, but she wasn’t immediately drawn to pursing a degree in STEM. It wasn’t until she took an AP Physics class during her junior year of high school that she realized the potential of research as a career.

“I loved the mathematical framework of physics and how it seemed to describe the way things work,” explains Emily. “I also was really inspired by several female mentors, and that encouraged me to pursue STEM in college.”

Emily received a dual degree in Engineering Physics and Piano Performance from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She chose to attend Northwestern for graduate school because of its reputation as a cutting-edge research institution and its proximity to Chicago.

“Northwestern is known for its highly collaborative and interdisciplinary research.” She says, “I remember one of the professors saying they couldn’t tell the difference between thesis proposals in chemistry or materials science or condensed matter physics. I thought that was so interesting to be at the intersection of all those sciences. There is really great potential to do some very novel and exciting research here.”

Emily works in the Van Duyne Research Group in an area called plasmonics. She studies energy transfer in plasmonic nanoscale systems, looking at the properties of molecules at an atomic level. She uses a technique called Raman spectroscopy, which is a form of vibrational spectroscopy.

“We use light to perturb a molecular system and watch the vibrations that occur in the bonds of the molecule,” she explains. “This allows us to infer various properties of the system. In the case of my thesis research, we’re hypothesizing that we can use various wavelengths of light close to the near UV to initiate plasmon-driven electron transfer. This will result in ionized molecules that we can observe.”

When she is not working in the lab, Emily is a concert pianist performing around Chicago. She regularly collaborates with vocal performers and composers at local venues. Most recently, she participated in a festival called Fresh Inc., sponsored by Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble, where she and her group premiered works by young, emerging composers.

“It’s really fun being a part of the artistic composition process,” Emily elaborates. “When a composer first brings you a score, no one knows how it’s going to sound. The way it sounds in their head is often different, and essentially, the piece isn’t really complete until you perform it.”

While they may appear unrelated, Emily finds that science and music have a lot in common. Her dual interests keep her balanced, providing both a creative outlet and a sense of discipline to her life.

“I see music as a great creative and artistic outlet when I’m not in the lab,” Emily says. “But, I really appreciate the structure and intellectual framework that research brings to the way you perceive the world and structuring your thought. I’ve always been attracted to both.”

In her spare time, Emily enjoys doing outreach and working within the Chicago community. She is on the board of an organization called MORE, Mentorship Opportunities for Research Engagement. The primary goal of MORE is to expose local Chicagoland students to hands-on science by assisting students with science fair projects, promoting women in science, and developing virtual career panels.

“My path in science has been very influenced by the people I’ve worked with, so I love doing outreach to get teenagers excited about science,” Emily says. “It’s incredible to see the work that they produce and what they are capable of doing.”

While Emily is undecided about staying in academia or entering the private sector post-degree, she is certain that wherever she ends up she’ll be pursuing research.