Dr. Zoey R. Herm was awarded the Reaxys PhD Prize for her work on separation of hexane isomers in a metal-organic framework (MOF). Here she talks with Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews.org about her research, what fascinates her about chemistry and her future plans.
My career began at Macalester College in Minnesota, St Paul, MN, where I worked as an undergraduate researcher synthesizing novel coordination compounds and looking to help answer a very small piece of the puzzle that is the fundamental scientific question of how metals bind to non-metals. I spent a brief period as a research assistant at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, before completing my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, CA. My research at Berkeley focused on designing materials that would make global industry more efficient, and so lower in carbon emissions.
Following Berkeley, I’m now a postdoctoral fellow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, where I’m working on a new research program on chromium contamination in soil, with the aim of developing a sustainable method for cleaning up pollution.
I was awarded the Reaxys PhD Prize for my research on metal-organic frameworks as part of the Long Group at the University of California, Berkeley. In particular, the prize was determined based on my 2013 paper, Separation of Hexane Isomers in a Metal-Organic Framework with Triangular Channels.
Our research was largely focused on applying the potential benefits of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) in the real world. These structures form nanometer-scale scaffolds that can be used to filter out impurities in industrial processes. For instance, MOF structures could be used to capture CO2 emissions from smoke stacks, making power plants much cleaner and helping industries worldwide meet carbon reduction targets.
My particular research was focused on designing a structure that would separate hexane isomers in gasoline production. This would allow gasoline to be produced at a higher quality; using less energy; and with fewer of toxic aromatics that are currently needed to boost the octane number of gasoline. We were able to identify a structure that would provide this separation. Someday down the road, there’s a small chance that might help make cleaner, more efficient gasoline production.
Since receiving my PhD, my subsequent research has moved away from metal-organic frameworks. However, the area is still ripe for exploration.
My work at ETH is currently focused on reducing chromium contamination; a problem which affects over 3 million people a year – whether they are near where chromium ore is extracted and processed, or near legacy construction sites where chromium levels are high even though the sites may have been used over 100 years ago. What I am researching is the potential for adding charcoal to contaminated soil, which is a possible remediation strategy.
The greatest challenge and greatest satisfaction in research are two sides of the same coin. The challenge comes from those periods – sometimes extending to months – where any progress is measured in tiny, incremental improvements from day to day. It all becomes worth it on the days where those weeks or months of research finally yield an interesting result.
I have always had a strong attraction towards chemistry. At the age of 15, my very first day of sophomore chemistry, I realized that it was possible for a high school course to be exciting. Throughout high school and beyond I became more and more confident that chemistry was what I wanted to spend my life doing.
I believe that the insights we can gain into the molecular world can provide potential solutions to a number of issues: whether gasoline production, chromium contamination, or industrial pollution.
In ten years’ time, I’d like to be doing what I am now: using chemistry to try to support global sustainability. I’d like to be working in a company where I can apply my academic training to real-world approaches.
Right now I’m living in Switzerland, directly in the middle of Europe, so I spend all my free time traveling. Since the start of my postdoc last year I’ve been to Sweden, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Ukraine, India, Austria, the UK, and Holland, and in most of those countries I’ve visited lots of different cities.
Zoey R. Harm gained her Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, USA, and her Doctor of Philosophy and Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. She was an undergraduate researcher at Macalester College, St. Paul, a research assistant at Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA, graduate instructor and graduate research assistant at University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA, before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, Switzerland.
Zoey Herm presented her research at the PhD Prize Symposium and Poster Session at the 2014 Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference in Grindelwald, Switzerland, in September 2015.
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