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Student Spotlight: Zoha Syed

Picture of Zoha Syed 

Zoha Syed, a 4th year PhD Candidate with the Farha group at Northwestern and Delferro group at Argonne National Laboratory, is studying catalysis with metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). Zoha is co-president of Phi Lambda Upsilon (PLU), the Chemistry Honor Society and was recently awarded the Edmund W. Gelewitz Award.  Zoha is originally from Seattle, WA and did her undergraduate work at the University of Washington, Seattle in Chemistry (BS) and Biochemistry (BA). In her spare time, Zoha enjoys exploring the multitude of restaurants and coffee shops in Chicago.  She is currently the board president of WISER (Women in Science and Engineering Research) at Northwestern.

Where are you from or where did you grow up?

I moved around a lot as a kid so home was a variety of places. I immigrated to the United States with my family from Pakistan when I was about 4-5 years old to Ann Arbor, MI, where my dad was starting his postdoctoral research in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. From there, we moved for my dad's job to Cary, NC and I spent most of my childhood in the research triangle park area. Just before I started high school, we ended up moving again for my dad's job to a suburb just outside of Dallas, TX. After about 3 years, we settled in the Seattle, WA area, which is where my family resides today. It's the place that's felt the most like home to me, and I love hyping up the pacific northwest (including the rain, which Seattleites sometimes call "liquid sunshine") every time a friend or colleague is getting ready for a visit.

What made you decide to attend Northwestern University?

I really fell in love with inorganic chemistry and catalysis during my time as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Seattle, so I knew going into the graduate school application process that I wanted to find a university with a strong inorganic research program for my PhD. Prior to starting graduate school, I had also been working as a researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, and really enjoyed interfacing with the U.S. department of energy, so I wanted to be in close proximity to a national lab during graduate school if possible. Northwestern University fit the bill with regard to both of these criteria in addition to having a strong sense of community amongst the students so it felt like the perfect choice.

What has been your favorite Chemistry class?

Structural Inorganic Chemistry with Prof. Tobin Marks was definitely a highlight. The course is a detailed survey of a myriad of characterization techniques that should be in every inorganic chemist's research toolbox. It was incredibly useful to go through the concepts behind these techniques from a fundamental perspective so that we could apply them to our research in the best way possible. When I took the course in fall of 2018, Prof. Marks would also tell us fun stories in every class that kept the early morning lectures interesting.

Is there a professor that has made an impact on your academic career?

Definitely, my undergraduate research advisor Prof. Karen Goldberg, who is currently the Vagelos Professor of Energy Research in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been incredibly supportive of my goals and has always given me advice as I've navigated through the big milestones of my chemistry career. I truly wouldn't be the scientist or person I am today without her mentorship. One piece of advice Karen would always give her group members that I try to emulate every day as a scientist is the following: "The data is trying to tell us something, we just need to be better listeners."

What has been the highlight of your academic career thus far?

I've been so lucky to get to work on the research projects that I have during my time in the Farha group at Northwestern. They're truly the highlight of my academic career thus far. My PhD work focuses on bringing organometallic chemistry to the nanoscale through immobilization of transition metal complexes within a class of nanomaterials called metal–organic frameworks (MOFs), which are like programmable sponges that can host a variety of chemical guests, like catalysts. My projects have allowed me to work at the nexus of molecular, inorganic chemistry, heterogeneous nanomaterials, and catalysis, which pushed me to the bounds of my fundamental knowledge and scientific creativity. This has really allowed me to grow as a chemist during my time at Northwestern.

Tell us about your experience of conducting research during COVID-19 pandemic? What are some challenges that you encountered and how did you overcome them?

Carrying out scientific research during the COVID-19 pandemic was definitely the hardest thing I've ever faced in my academic career, like many of my peers at Northwestern. The challenges I encountered ranged from being out of the laboratory for extended periods of time due to viral exposure risks to tolls on my mental health during quarantine periods. How I overcame these hurdles is a testament to the support network I've had around me during graduate school, composed of my family, friends, and academic mentors, who uplifted me during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and reminded me to stay positive in the face of adversity. Moreover, partaking in student-led organizations such as PLU, WISER, GSA, and others on campus allowed me to work with Northwestern University officials as they were planning COVID-19 policies. Knowing I could help the Northwestern community, even in a small way, during the pandemic also improved my morale greatly.

Where do you hope to be in your career in the next 10 years?

I hope to become a professor at an R1 university, where I can continue to conduct creative, scientific research on diverse teams of individuals as excited about energy, inorganic chemistry, and catalysis as I am! In the process, a big priority of mine is, and will always be, to work with younger students to foster their interest in the sciences. Chemistry was not always something of appeal to me until the right professor came along, and I hope to be that mentor for someone, someday.