Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1994
Department of Chemistry, Arts and Sciences, Newark; Rutgers
Areas of Interest: Molecular Linkers, Semiconductor Nanoparticles.
When I chose to study chemistry at the University of Pisa, most of my friends and teachers were surprised. I had taken Latin and Greek in high school and art history as part of a mainly liberal arts curriculum ("Liceo Classico"), but I had always been interested in animals and nature. And outside of school, I already had taken a first glimpse at scientific research. My father was the director of the Food Science Institute at the University of Pisa, and when I was a child he would take me to his office every once and a while. There I wandered around and saw people doing experiments in the labs and by talking to them I learned how they were trying to answer some questions though their experiments. These visits made me want to study chemistry.
My parents always supported me and gave me freedom to study what I wanted, as long as it was a challenge; they did not want me to take an easy route. I also owe so much to my grandmother. She was a tough woman, who valued education very much, maybe also because she was not able to study herself. She had a great deal of common sense.
In science, the person that first inspired me was my M.S. supervisor at the University of Pisa, who taught me the necessary lab skills. She was one of the few women professors at the university, and I was her only student at the time. She really followed my work and made sure I learned the basic synthetic and laboratory techniques properly.
After I obtained my master's degree in Pisa ("Laurea in Chimica"), I received a fellowship for one year at the University of Chicago. There I became really immersed in chemistry. I enjoyed the intellectual life; scientists I knew from textbooks gave lecture there and stopped by in the lab. Combined with the active student life, the atmosphere in Chicago was different from anything I had ever experienced.
The freedom and independence I had during my PhD research is what made science really interesting for me. The challenge in my field, organic chemistry, is to design a molecule that answers your questions. In Chicago, I found a new synthetic route towards a certain molecule I had to make, and that was different from the method people had previously used. This was the first spark, the first time I realized that thinking for myself and finding my own way in the lab gave me satisfaction.
I decided to stay in Chicago to earn a PhD degree. I investigated the unusual physical organic properties of highly strained small organic molecules called cage compounds. These compounds are high-energy materials and could be used in propellants or missiles. My professor in Chicago was a real world expert in this field; I was his only female student. Still, I made good friends with the fifteen male students and postdocs in the lab, and being unique was also kind of fun.
After a postdoc period in Texas, I came to Rutgers University in 1996, where I studied the properties of chromophores bound to semiconductors. We try to link these molecules together in a controlled manner, and examine the photochemical and photoelectrochemical properties of the resulting hybrid materials. We are trying to understand how the linker influences the charge transfer between the chromophore and the semiconductor. My group mostly performs fundamental synthetic research. But because these molecule-semiconductor assemblies could lead to a new type of solar cell or biosensor, I collaborate with professors from the engineering department in finding applications. I also took a sabbatical in Sweden where I learned more about these new types of solar cells and techniques to make them. The close connection between fundamental research and application and the interdisciplinary nature of what we study makes this area of research very interesting to me.
What I love about being a professor is working with students. I regret that I cannot spend as much time with them in the lab as I would like, but I try to follow and support them in their work. I hope to inspire them to pursue a research career. My students keep me young and keep me in touch with reality. As is often the case in science, it is a very international group, so young people from different cultures work together and become friends. It is wonderful to see all this.
After trying to return to Italy I decided to stay in the US because I felt that this country was more open to young people who want to work in academia. At that time I was ready to start my independent career, the academic system in Italy was very inaccessible.
Now I have my own lab in Newark and it is very hard to obtain the same scientific freedom and experimental facilities in most countries in Europe. I have two children now, which gives me more ties in the US. The children and I go back to Italy every year: I "recharge my batteries" and they enjoy the family.
The biggest difficulty I encountered is combining my work as a chemistry professor with raising two children. People always use the expression "balancing work and family", but there is nothing balanced about it. When I travel to attend conferences, I am away from my children and miss them very much. At other moments, I have to sacrifice my work duties to take care of my children. Being a scientist makes this juggling extra hard, because you can never take a break from work. I have to stay in touch with the people in my lab, and keep up with the latest scientific discoveries and publications in my field. But, I do have those very rare and wonderful moments when it feels like I have it all. And every day, I am thankful for my job and my children, because they have been worth all the effort.
Transcribed from an interview with Mariette Bliekendaal.