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Spotlight on Amanda Corcos: Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemistry

Created: September 24, 2018

Amanda Corcos, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in Chemistry researching a new class of polymers, which she is developing into membranes for use in water purification and desalination. She was recently named a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is excited to connect her research to policy that will solve problems.

How would you describe your research and/or work?
I am working with a new class of two-dimensional polymers, covalent organic frameworks (COFs), and am developing them into membranes for use in water purification and desalination processes. Current state-of-the-art membranes are optimized empirically and so cannot be further improved. With our system, we can tailor our materials to remove different organic pollutants and salt. Think of the colander you use when making pasta – we can make the holes in the colander to be uniformly big or small, to have different shapes, and we can customize the colander itself to be any size.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
The biggest twist of my scientific career is the change in research I conducted for my PhD versus what I study now. During my graduate career, I synthesized species that had metal-metal bonds and were air-, water-, and temperature sensitive (they would decompose above -78 °C). In my current studies, the materials I synthesize do not contain any metals (only light atoms like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sometimes oxygen and boron), are stable at room temperature, and I purposefully expose these materials to water.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
Within the field of chemistry, I admire Geoff Coates from Cornell University since his group performs elegant, mechanistic studies that have large, real-world impacts. He is working to make the “perfect plastic” from biodegradable, renewable resources to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Within the field of science in general, I admire my dad, Daniel Corcos, who is a professor here at Northwestern. He has spent his career studying Parkinson’s disease and, through his research on deep brain stimulation (DBS) and exercise, has shown that the former can reduce symptoms of the disease while the latter slows the progression of the disease. This research has had a tremendous impact on the daily lives of those individuals living with Parkinson’s. I think it is important to solve large problems that affect people in general, but it is also important to find ways to help people who have specific, pressing, individual needs.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Clean, potable water is an increasingly limited resource due to a number of factors like climate change, population growth, industrial pollution, and economic development. The membranes currently used to purify water are developed and optimized empirically, which limits their performance. Our research has the potential to revolutionize water purification since our membranes are rationally designed and contain uniform, aligned pores, which will allow for better separation of clean water from contaminants and require less energy to do so.

Why Northwestern?
I chose to do my postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern since I wanted to work with Professor Will Dichtel. I was (and still am!) excited about our group’s research, and Northwestern has top-tier resources and instrumentation that allows us to pursue our interests. Additionally, Northwestern is known for supporting and protecting the intellectual property of its researchers, a topic that I have been interested in for a long time. Therefore, in addition to conducting postdoctoral research, I did an internship at Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures (INVO) technology transfer office this last spring.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
When I was younger I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to Space Camp® in Huntsville, Alabama when I was 16 years old, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It also led me to pursue a PhD in chemistry, for one is eligible to be an astronaut if one has an advanced degree in the physical sciences.

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
I would suggest two pieces of advice. First, do not compare yourself or your scientific progress to anyone else. Every project is different, some people get lucky, and if you find your project interesting and important then results will eventually follow. Second, paths do not have to be linear or already identified. Pursue whatever inspires you, even if you do not know where that interest will lead you.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I have recently been named an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow, so I will be moving to Washington, D.C. in the near future. I am really excited for this new opportunity and to connect my scientific knowledge with policy to positively affect societal challenges.