PhD Candidate in Chemistry
Alexandra Brumberg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Her current research investigates the optical and thermal properties of semiconductor nanomaterials and how they are influenced by nanoparticle shape. Alexandra is a member of the Schaller Group. In 2019, she was awarded a Ryan Graduate Fellowship. Ryan Fellows are graduate students dedicated to the exploration of fundamental nanoscale science geared toward practical applications that benefit society.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
A lot of problems in chemistry and materials science come down to figuring out how to control the flow of energy. Think about a light bulb: you want to be able to convert all of the energy that goes through the bulb into light, rather than a different form of energy like heat. Another example is solar cells, where the goal is to convert the energy from sunlight into electrical energy. My research looks at nanomaterials, which are small bits of matter that have unique electronic properties as a result of their small scale. I study how the shape of a nanoparticle affects how fast or how well it converts energy – which I impart using a laser! – into other forms, like light or heat.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
There are a lot of female faculty members that I really admire. Being a faculty member in and of itself seems overwhelming, so it becomes especially impressive when I see young professors succeeding both in their academic careers and in starting a family. Hopefully, those are two things I’ll be able to balance as well.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
I’m sure many PhD students would agree that the most rewarding part of the PhD program is when you’ve reached a point of understanding in a challenging problem or mastered a challenging technique. For me, though, I think the biggest challenge is not in overcoming the intellectual barriers associated with those tasks, but rather in overcoming my anxiety. When I’m running a new experiment, I’m often trying to figure out how to operate a new instrument while also battling a time crunch and feeling the pressure to make sure it works—since, after all, your success as a scientist is intimately tied to the success of your experiments. However, it’s been deeply satisfying to be able to look back on my progress as a PhD student and see that these new situations don’t overwhelm me as much anymore and that I’ve developed a sort of resilience to the problems I face in the lab.
I knew when I was applying to graduate school that I wanted to do research at the intersection between chemistry, physics, and materials science. Northwestern stood out to me for being interdisciplinary and collaborative and because the research in the chemistry department was very materials-driven. It was also really clear that the department was committed to improving itself; there are constant efforts underway to improve the quality of research taking place, and I liked that the department didn’t take their status for granted.
What books are on your bedside table?
Right now, I’m reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. There are about six other books I’ve started and not finished, but these two have caught my attention!
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
For a while, I was pretty serious about wanting to be a Broadway dancer! But I think the more intellectual side of me took over. I’ve also always wanted to be a writer, and what’s great about being a scientist is that I get to spend a lot of my time writing. Hopefully, I’ll even get to write a book one day!
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
I probably wouldn’t have listened to any advice given to me, even from my older self. I’d say that the most important thing is to find people whose opinions you value. I was (and still am…) quite stubborn, but the mentors that I have found have done a fantastic job at guiding me along the right path, even when it took me a long time to realize that they were right.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I’m really excited to be a part of the Teaching Certificate Program this upcoming academic year!
Published: August 25, 2020
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