Maria Gomez

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

The lives of subatomic particles—their attractions and repulsions, couplings and uncouplings, and excited states—these are the province of Maria Gomez. To be specific, Maria studies proton conduction in perovskite crystals. Since perovskite crystals are promising components of fuel cells, an alternative energy source, Maria’s research helps address the world energy crisis. To make the best fuel cells, the ones that generate electricity most efficiently, it is necessary to know how the protons move in and between perovskite crystals that have been “doped” with various elements. The number of possible proton conduction pathways is mind-boggling, but Maria works out the most efficient paths using paper and pencil models, computer simulations, and her extensive knowledge of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, classical mechanics, and quantum mechanics. Additionally, she initiated collaboration with Dylan Shepardson in the math department to exploit graph theory for her simulations. Maria has published 22 papers in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals and has received steady grant support from the National Science Foundation.

Strongly encouraged by her mother, Maria pursued her interest in science as a child by doing experiments at home, checking out science books from the library, and programming a computer. Her aptitude for science was made abundantly clear when, as a student at Rhode Island College, she graduated summa cum laude not only in chemistry but also in physics and applied math. Maria earned her doctorate in chemistry from Brown University and, in 1997, headed to New Mexico to begin postdoctoral research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

At Los Alamos, Maria was in for a shock. With the exception of one secretary, she was the only woman in the theoretical chemistry department. While attending lectures with 40 other scientists, she discovered that she was the only female present. These experiences helped shape her career goals. Not only did Maria want to pursue research in computational chemistry, she wanted to encourage other women to do the same. She has succeeded spectacularly on both fronts. Maria helped found MERCURY, a research consortium of 14 primarily undergraduate institutions. The consortium shares computational resources and holds an annual meeting that brings in female scientists as speakers and highlights student work. Since her arrival at Mount Holyoke in 2003, Maria has published papers in peer-reviewed journals with 14 Mount Holyoke students. Six of her students have already earned doctorates in chemistry or related fields, nine are currently in graduate school, and six others work in the biomedical field. Many of her students did not realize their own potential until they worked with Maria. As one former student who now holds a doctorate in molecular biology wrote, “I was just simply amazed because I never thought I could do this hard-core chemistry work.” Even after her students graduate, Maria continues to provide guidance, encouragement, and support. She keeps in contact with all her former students, posting their latest accomplishments on her lab alumnae page. 

At Mount Holyoke, Maria teaches a full range of chemistry courses, from the introductory class to thermodynamics. Not content with teaching her students how to use equations, she teaches them how each equation is derived. For her Atomic and Molecular Structure course, Maria took her class to the Mount Holyoke Art Museum, where the students used infrared light to examine the layers of paint on a canvas, revealing the underdrawing and even a forged signature. Maria’s classroom, like her lab, is a place with “good chemistry.” Her students comment on her brilliance and her smiles.

Finally, Maria’s educational mission does not end at the campus gate. With her Passport to Chemistry program, she brings “better living through chemistry” to grade-school children and their parents. Since Maria read in educational journals that parental involvement significantly impacts a child’s education, she teamed up with her lab instructors, obtained funding from the Dreyfus Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences, and put together a series of chemistry kits and activities, available from public libraries, for parents to do with their kids. When children complete several kits, they receive prizes and a chance to participate in chemistry adventure days, and even get to blog about their experiences on the Passport website.

One research collaborator called Maria “a force of nature.” Clearly, this description is no exaggeration. Given the importance of her research, her exceptional productivity, and her desire and ability to bring chemistry to the world, please join me in honoring Maria Gomez with the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.