PhD Candidate in the Department of Chemistry
Julia Knapp is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Her research concerns the stabilization of uranium and understanding how it reacts with and catalyzes a variety of reactions.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
Despite its radioactive reputation, uranium can catalyze many different reactions, such as transforming nitrogen into ammonia, a valuable component of fertilizer. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a good understanding or control of it, since it is highly reactive and toxic. My research is focused on understanding how uranium reacts with things and how it can do these powerful reactions, while also keeping it exclusively in a solid-state, crystal framework. These metal-organic frameworks, which are comprised of uranium-containing ions connected by organic molecules, can prevent uranium from reacting in unintended ways and stabilize it in useful forms, thus allowing us to more realistically consider how to use it outside of a lab setting.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
In high school, one of my chemistry teachers showed my class a documentary about the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Hearing interviews with the surrounding population —specifically about their health and livelihood struggles—resonated with me even more than did the science. I was horrified about what had happened, and I needed to understand why we (the world at large) would even consider using this material. So, it’s been one of my lifelong goals to work with uranium.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Because not much is known about uranium, I feel like I’m discovering something new every time I go to work. The lack of shared knowledge can be a problem if I’m stuck, however. Nonetheless, knowing I directly contributed something novel outweighs any difficulties.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
There’s so much nuclear waste just sitting underground that we, as a society, don’t know how to deal with. If I could help develop a safe, straightforward way of upcycling this waste material into something useful through confining it to a framework, that would be wonderful.
What inspires you?
People. I do science with the intention of bettering the lives of others by completing research projects others may be apprehensive about. My friends, family, and fellow researchers all provide me with motivation to keep going.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
When completing any kind of research, be it history, psychology, chemistry, or whatever, your default mindset cannot be “I just need keep going and I’ll complete this project/solve this problem/etc.” Having resilience is one thing; burning yourself out through constant long hours and overcommitment is not healthy or useful. Be strict with your boundaries and treat yourself with respect.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I was selected by the Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Research Program to receive training at Los Alamos National Laboratory. There, I can not only learn about uranium, but plutonium, too!
Published: August 31, 2021
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