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Alumni Spotlight: Monica So

Monica So Photo

Monica So, a 2015 graduate student from the Hupp Group, is an Associate Professor at California State University, Chico. The So Lab harnesses chemical intuition to address fundamental challenges in physics and tackle sustainability problems. The research aims to improve the long-term stability of solar panels, enhance the performance of Li-S batteries, and work effectively to clean up water after wildfires and oil spills in the ocean.

 In what ways did your time in the Department shape you and inspire your work today?  

The Department taught me research and mentorship skills, as well as the value of collaboration and interdisciplinary work. My graduate research on studying the light harvesting and energy transfer phenomena of metal-organic frameworks built my core expertise in synthesis, characterization, and evaluation of nanomaterials and continues to inspire the work of my undergraduate-driven research group today. My perspective on mentoring students was influenced by the mentoring style of my advisor, Prof. Joe Hupp. He provided support while giving me space to find my path. I am grateful for the mentoring, guidance, and support from Joe, graduate committee members, lab mates, and cohort members in the department. Without these experiences, I would not be successful in my current role as a chemistry professor.

During my Ph.D., I was also fortunate to be able to work with collaborators at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) at Argonne National Laboratory. Through multiple approved user proposals, CNM provided me with access to training, expertise, equipment, resources, and opportunities not available at NU. This unique access gave me a more profound understanding of resources at national labs than most of my colleagues which I still benefit from today.

Entering NU as a novice graduate student, I had limited experience working with scientists outside of chemistry in conducting scientific research. Working through a challenging thesis topic is a remarkably humbling experience. Since the solutions were not solely in chemistry, I was motivated to search for them in physics, materials science, and engineering. Thus, my experience in the department opened my eyes to the power of interdisciplinary research which simultaneously broadened my network of collaborators and improved my scientific communication with non-chemists. This has translated into my success as a chemistry professor, specifically in researching with national laboratory collaborators and teaching STEM and non-STEM majors, as evidenced by my recent Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.

While at NU, you conducted research in the Hupp group. What was the most memorable part of that experience?  

My graduate school years were honestly some of the best times of my life due to the people I met. I have made lasting friendships with former group members, postdoctoral scholars, and visiting scholars inside and outside the Hupp group. My group members motivated me to tackle my thesis project on days that I did not feel like it, helped me break down and prioritize tasks, and strategically plan out experiments, presentations, and writing so I could accomplish the most within the least amount of time, space, and resources. When I first started as a graduate student, I experienced 90% failure and 10% success in research. My cohort members and I even created comical annual department holiday skits to comment on our trials and tribulations over Years 1, 2, 3, and 4! In all seriousness, my friends outside the group challenged me to ‘code’ (as a non-CS person, I learned how to use LabView to interface with peristaltic pumps, fondly known then as “Monica-bots”), seek out an internship (I worked at Microlink Devices for 14 weeks), improve my science communication (I gave 7-min TED-style talk as a Ready Set Go Fellow, now rebranded as Research Communication Training Program), improve my teaching (I credit my pedagogical foundation as a Searle Center Graduate Teaching Fellow), become a better leader (I was President for both Graduate Women Across Northwestern and Society for Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers), and become a better runner (I went from a couch potato to running the Chicago Marathon at NU). Have I convinced you now that my time in graduate school was so memorable?

How would you explain your work to non-scientists? What drew you to this line of research?  

Research in my lab advances the chemistry of complex materials for charge transport. To do so, we work to design metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which are built from two different components - the first being metals and the second are the organic building blocks. You can mix and match metal and organic building blocks, like with tinker toys, to build a framework. We like to compare MOFs to programmable nanosponges - programmable because instead of focusing on single elements on the periodic table (like carbon), the entire periodic table is open for making and modifying MOFs. MOFs are like nanosponges because they have so many pores. One tablespoon of MOF powders is so porous that if you lay them out flat, they have the internal surface area of a standard-sized football field! One potential application for conductive high surface area materials is lithium-ion batteries that you’re using in your laptops or cell phones every day. If we can make a solid electrolyte that lets lithium ions walk through fast, you get a renewable battery with high power density.

My interest in this research comes from my graduate research, where I studied the photophysical properties of photoactive MOFs. Inspired by plant structures like chloroplasts, I was able to tune the MOFs’ structure to have light absorption and emitting properties. While energy transport behavior in MOFs became clearer during my graduate work, charge transport behavior in MOFs remains underexplored. Thus, eager to understand the charge transfer phenomenon, my group is currently “teaching” MOFs (typically insulators) to transport electrons and ions.

What are some of the potential applications of the research that you do?  

We are focusing on developing technologies to support renewable energy production to help the U.S. meet its growing demand for electricity. The State of California, with more than 280 days of sunshine, has the ideal climate to generate electricity from one renewable energy source, solar energy. For example, our NSF- and Agriculture Research Institute-funded project focuses on trying to integrate electrically conductive MOFs as hole-transport interlayers within semi-transparent organic photovoltaics. We intend to deploy them as “agrivoltaics” which enable co-production of electricity and crops on the same land.  However, storing the electricity for use during the night or on overcast days remains a significant challenge. Thus, in our U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored project, we are developing electrically conductive MOFs as cathode additives and sulfur hosts, as well as ionically conductive MOF interlayers to maximize the storage capacity of low-cost lithium-sulfur batteries.

Do you have any advice for current students in the Department? 

Stay humble, seek help, and ask questions. If one approach does not work in tackling a problem, try an alternative or new approach. Importantly, spending one hour in the library (e.g., literature reviews) saves 30 hours in the laboratory. 

Which hobby or activity do you pursue outside of Chemistry?  

It’s hard not to relate my hobbies to chemistry, as it’s woven into the fabric of my life. For example, I enjoy food chemistry (e.g., cooking vegetarian-friendly dishes and trying foods as a Yelp Elite blogger), exploring the interface of art and surface chemistry (e.g., acrylic painting on canvas), and strengthening familial bonds (e.g., playing Pokémon Go with my husband and reading with my daughter).