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Faculty Spotlight: Franz Geiger

Franz GeigerFranz Geiger, a member of the Department since 2001, currently holds the position of Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry. Leading the Geiger Lab, his research employs state-of-the-art laser spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, and computational techniques to investigate the unique roles surfaces and interfaces play in geochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, and biophysics. Beyond his research, Franz serves as the Director of Graduate Curriculum and Chair of the CARES Committee.

Describe your career path and the reasons why you chose chemistry?

Before starting college, I spent a gap year in Mexico City during the height of the urban air pollution crisis there. On the first day of the raining season, I stood in the zocalo, the city’s central plaza, and the rain started to pour. Quickly, my clothes were drenched and covered in soot particles from car exhaust. I knew right then and there that I wanted to study environmental chemistry.

What is the best way to explain your research to someone who is not a chemist?  

“God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.” This adage attributed to Wolfgang Pauli summarizes the special relationship that chemists have with the surfaces and interfaces of the objects that surround us. We have long been fascinated by the special role that interfaces play when they interact with the external world. Yet, our quest to understand, control, and predict physical and chemical processes in these asymmetric environments has only been met with success for but the most idealized model systems, which typically require ultra-high vacuum conditions. Accessing interfaces under the conditions of the real world represents an entirely different challenge, as the traditional surface science tools, most notably X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and the scanning electron microscope, are not applicable at ambient pressure or at liquid interfaces, with rare exceptions. Yet, it is near 1 atmosphere and 300 K that most common objects form boundaries with their surroundings. Consider liquid water, which covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, or aerosol particles in the atmosphere, which are some of the most enigmatic constituents of the Earth’s climate system. The same applies to the surface of our skin or the alveoli of our lungs that allow for the exchange of gases we rely on. Likewise, the surfaces of many engineered materials are in contact with ambient temperature and pressure conditions – just think of the polymers forming the surface of the common computer mouse, or the smartphone screens we use for everyday communication. In each of these cases, the surface of interest is in contact with the real world. We have exquisitely special tools to interrogate surfaces and interfaces of these systems under ambient conditions in real-time, without having to rely on external labels, and with great selectivity for chemical bonds and electronic transitions.

Can you describe some potential applications for your research?

We have two patents issued that cover 1) our photonic voltmeter and 2) ocean wave energy harvesting. The first is just that: shine photons at an interface and we can tell you about the electric field across it. Imagine that for a polymer in contact with an oxide or another polymer, one of the most common architectures in consumer products. The second literally converts the up and down motion of the ocean waves to electric current and a voltage high enough to light up a blue light emitting diode, the gold standard for energy conversion. Unlike in our photonic voltmeter, which we understand very well, we don’t know yet why the energy harvester works but have some ideas we’d like to explore.

How would you describe the Geiger Lab environment and your expectations for those working in the lab? 

As I write on our webpage, “The apprenticeship model in academia is one of the oldest in any profession. New data on mental health and well-being shows it needs to be brought into the 21st century. My mentoring goal is to meet this need and to provide a modern approach to training future scientists. The Geiger Group thrives in interdisciplinary settings. The students take a steering role in their own scientific development by fully integrating whatever methods and techniques are necessary to achieve their research goals. Further, a central aspect to my mentoring style is making time for my students, while allowing them to quarterback their own projects. We hold weekly group meetings, with one student presenting on their scientific projects per meeting. I encourage all group members to actively participate with questions, brainstorming, and idea generation, which has been shown to minimize siloing. We alternate those meetings with literature group meetings, in which two students each present and critically assess one paper relevant to their interests. Besides the science, our group meetings also emphasize data presentation and framing, graphing, and figure layout and design. Finally, we have ethics group meetings, typically every six weeks, in which we discuss two ethics cases from the NIH ethics case collection with a specific emphasis on the ‘gray zone’." 

You have been faculty Chair for the CARES Committee over the past couple of years. Can you talk about the work you all are going and the growth you have seen?

Regan Thomson and Stephanie Knezz started CARES a number of years ago and it’s been amazing to see how much the committee has been accomplishing. We are the only departmental committee that has full representation of our constituents (faculty, graduate students, postdocs, staff, as well as strategic partners) safe undergraduate students, to avoid conflicts of interest. We have expanded the original charge to address diversity, equity, and inclusion to a much broader vision of Climate, Accountability, Recruitment, Education, and Support and Advocacy. Together with biology, we have led the integration with our other STEM counterparts and set the example on how to operate for the college and the university as a whole. To this end, we are now the umbrella organization for promoting excellence and fostering community within the department through active representation and inclusion of individuals from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. We are particularly proud of our collaborative work with NUBonD, through which the department benefits from the NUBonD-CARES minutes at the colloquia, as well as the Northwestern Equitable Application Resource program. The CARES website is now fully running and provides a ton of resources for our department in terms of writing broader impacts and diversity statements. The latest initiative, generating probably the biggest band for the buck, is the monthly Community Coffee Hour - a straight-forward idea to bring people together an hour before the Wednesday colloquium, which then increased the number of colloquium attendants as well. There are also postdoc- and graduate student-focused projects in the work that are run by some of our committee members with the goal of increasing our community and network of peers.

What advice would you give to young researchers considering a career in academia? 

Let your own lived experience drive you to find your passion and nothing will stop you. It will fuel your fire in the belly, which is a great motivator to overcome what often appear as insurmountable barriers that will be in your way.  Remember that if it were easy, someone else would have done it already. In other words, as President Kennedy said when unveiling his lunar landing program: “Why climb the highest mountain? … Why does Rice play Texas? … not because that will be easy, but because it will be hard … because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

What is something you would like us to know about you that is not on your CV?

As many chemists do, I love cooking and music. I also grow vegetables and can grow a lot during the late summer, but I’m not a prepper despite the political odds this November. We have four guinea pigs at home (Sasha, Scarlett, Saffron, and Butter) that are part of the Geiger group’s Spectroscopets family. Finally, I grew up 5 minutes from Zoo station in Berlin, Germany, so I am a big U2 fan.


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