Finding new puzzles in math and chemistry

Laura E. Fernandez ’08 PhD

Laura E. Fernandez ’08 PhD

Laura E. Fernandez ’08 PhD, Managing Editor

Major: Chemistry, Mathematics Minor

Research Group: Gomez Lab

Graduate Program: Pennsylvania State University

Post-doctoral Program: University of Minnesota

Employer: ACS Nano and Nano Letters

Growing up I always loved puzzles. Indeed, my mother and father would buy me many different kinds of puzzles associated with various subjects and disciplines in hopes that I might learn something other than just solving the puzzle. My father would even refer to me as the “Puzzle Queen.”

The most fascinating puzzles of all were those associated with – believe it or not – math and science. Even my love of music (I sing and play a little piano – and participated in MHC’s “Big Broadcast!”) probably is associated with the fact that music in many ways is numeric.

When entering Mount Holyoke, chemistry and mathematics were my puzzles of choice. I managed to find the perfect combination of both in the Fall of 2006 when I took Quantum Mechanics with Dr. Alan Van Giessen and joined Dr. Maria Gomez’s group and she would ultimately guide me through my thesis on the dissociation of nuclear cooling water (for the uninitiated, I was interested in seeing what would it take to make nuclear cooling water potable or safe to drink – not that I would want to be the guinea pig for that experiment!).

The most amazing experience for me as an undergrad at MHC was the opportunity to work on real scientific research (not an experience one gets in most undergraduate programs). Indeed some of my work led to me being a co-author on one of Dr. Gomez’s papers in The Journal of Chemical Physics, "The effect of yttrium dopant on the proton conduction pathways of BaZr03, a cubic perovskite".

After my graduation in 2008, I was lucky enough to stay at MHC for the summer and work with Dr. Gomez on a perovskite oxide (which can be used as a proton conductor in fuel cells) project and at the end of that summer was fortunate enough to go to graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, where I studied under another remarkable female chemist Dr. Sharon Hammes-Schiffer.

At graduate school, the science community was more intense. There were days when I felt like I’d fallen into an episode of the sit-com “The Big Bang Theory” and I was Penny, the non-scientific one living across the hall. But as I studied proton-coupled electron transfer (PCET) reactions, which involve the transfer of single or multiple electrons and protons in sequential or concerted fashion, and electrocatalysts that are inspired by hydrogenase enzymes, which oxidize and produce H2 in nature.

I realized that my days in the lab and classes at MHC were not wasted. In fact, my courses and research in physical chemistry helped, but the many hours I spent pushing electrons in organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry with Dr. Darren G. Hamilton and Dr. Sheila Browne prove to be worth every minute of my time. They, along with Dr. Gomez and Dr. Van Giessen had helped me solve the puzzle for understanding this world of molecules and atoms, and helped make me more confident and be the smart, strong, fearless young woman all Mount Holyoke women can be whether they are inspired by science or song – or puzzles.

In the Spring of 2013, I graduated with Ph.D. in theoretical computational chemistry from Penn State (yes, I am now Dr. Laura).  I went on to doing post-doctoral research at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities under Dr. Donald G. Truhlar where we studied nanoporous materials as part of the Nanoporous Materials Genome Center and the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center (ICDC). Within these centers, I focused on developing force fields for metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) as well as a series of mechanistic and thermodynamic studies of MOFs. Much of the work is focused on using computational chemistry to test boundaries and see if it might give us a window into energy breakthroughs. Developing more energy-efficient catalysts or extending the storage time of energy (which could greatly reduce the cost of alternative energy sources from solar power to wind and nuclear power). In addition to my research at the University of Minnesota, I was also the Scientific Coordinator, where I would help manage and write highlights for the ICDC utilizing my writing skills that MHC helped me to improve. 

In June 2016, I moved to the Washington, DC metro area to work for the American Chemical Society as the Managing Editor of ACS Nano and Nano Letters, where not just my scientific background but also my organizing and writing skills are utilized regularly.

Without the support of the extraordinary faculty within MHC’s Chemistry Department and the nurturing environment at MHC which says all young women can succeed, the only puzzles I might be solving today are the 1000-piece kind that comes in a box.