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Skrabalak fosters collaboration, innovation in materials chemistry

Video by Aaron Shafer

Sept. 30, 2015

Sara Skrabalak is doing big things with small research subjects.

At IU, she conducts research in the field of inorganic materials chemistry on the nanoscale, or the study of how materials on the scale of one billionth of a meter are formed and structured. 

“On the nanoscale, there are completely new properties that can emerge,” Skrabalak said.

For example, a piece of gold typically appears yellow. But on the nanoscale, it appears red. And if you change the shape of the gold nanoparticles, they can appear blue. These clues help scientists better understand how different materials can be used in new technologies such as better tools for disease diagnosis and treatment and platforms for sustainable energy, Skrabalak said.

“Our work is really trying to understand how you make those materials with high precision,” she said.

Skrabalak has received several early-career awards, including recognition for innovative undergraduate teaching. And in January, she was named a James H. Rudy Associate Professor of Chemistry.

She said a knowledgeable faculty and recent investments in infrastructure for the characterization of nanomaterials, such as the Nanoscale Characterization Facility and the Electron Microscopy Center in Simon Hall, make it a great time to do research in materials chemistry at IU.

“As science is becoming more interdisciplinary, you are having to fuse ideas from biology and chemistry, physics and engineering,” Skrabalak said. “It’s great to have a broad base of expertise on campus.”

In addition to teaching chemistry classes, Skrabalak said she loves working with students in her research group, the Skrabalak group, which includes undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. Nicknamed the “Skrablab,” the group fosters collaborative research projects among students of all levels of study as well as teaching transferable skills.

“Any student that’s working in my research group will be given their own individual project, developing really important troubleshooting skills applicable to all areas of science,” she said. 

Alison Smith, a graduate student studying materials chemistry in the Skrabalak group, said Skrabalak is an amazing mentor to her and her fellow students.

“She always makes sure that she has the resources that we need to conduct our research,” Smith said. “She’s very encouraging and positive.” 

The Skrabalak group recently entered a new collaboration with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy lab, allowing them to study the real-time formation of nanomaterials with defined shapes.

Skrabalak said she is looking forward to furthering this collaboration and to the future of her field in general.

“I just find it amazing that we can use chemistry to assemble these atoms in to nanostructures with size and shape control,” she said. “I’d be excited to see where this field goes in seven or eight years.”

Before coming to IU in 2008, Skrabalak did postdoctoral work at the University of Washington-Seattle. She earned her Ph.D. in chemistry, with an emphasis on materials, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis.

Skrabalak’s work aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including catalyzing research, a vibrant community of scholars and student success.

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