The importance of nurturing our undergraduate students

January 13, 2019

Alexander Brown in the lab of John Arnold

photo: Alexandra Brown in the lab at Berkeley (courtesy Scholarship connection)

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation announced its new class of fellows for 2018 last spring, naming alumna Alexandra Brown (B.S. Chem, ’17) one of ten newly minted graduate students as a recipient. This group of awardees was significant not only for their scholarship to date, but because six of the ten recipients were women, the highest proportion of women in any class since the fellowship was established in 1957. 

Brown, who is now a second-year graduate student in the lab of Professor Dan Suess at MIT, was chosen from a pool of nearly 700 applicants. The Hertz Fellowship is a five-year, $250k scholarship given to incoming graduate students based on their scholastic record. “Hertz Fellows do extraordinary work and are truly changing the world,” Dr. David Galas, Hertz Fellow and Board chairman stated. “The fellowship interviewers were amazed by the brilliance and creativity of these young people. I am confident their careers will have great impact on American and global science and technology.”

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Brown worked with Alison Altman, a graduate student in the research group of Professor John Arnold studying titanium-aluminum heterobimetallics supported by bridging hydride ligands. Her work helped expand the classes of reactions these complexes are known to undergo and provided insight into metal-metal interactions in these materials. 

According to Altman “Alex has had the complete experience of developing and troubleshooting a project through to a publication, and I believe she will only continue to thrive scientifically in graduate school. I am certainly lucky to have her not just as a student but as a collaborator because her passion for science and obvious potential have made mentoring her a greater privilege than I ever could have imagined.”

Arnold said of Brown, “Alex was amazing during her time at Berkeley. Not only did she excel in her courses, and was a first-class researcher, she also played on the rugby team requiring her to go out regularly for practices and games. To be on a competitive sports team, to succeed in challenging courses, and do rigorous research at the same time, is really impressive.”

Alexander Brown during a rugby match

Brown (in the middle) during a match. photo: Berkeley All Blues

Brown was an author on several published research papers while at Berkeley. She was first author on the paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Science: "Hydride oxidation from a titanium–aluminum bimetallic complex: insertion, thermal and electrochemical reactivity." Arnold commented, “It’s a challenge to be published as an undergraduate and it’s impressive to see how many of our students pull this off. A first-author paper in Chem. Sci. is quite an accomplishment and an indicator of just how engaged Alex was in her research.

“However, in order for our undergraduate students to have these kinds of research opportunities which can help propel them onto graduate school and stellar careers, we need to have several things happen. First, we need to have graduate students or postdocs available who are willing and able to take them on as research assistants and faculty who support this. Second, there has to be scholarship support to allow undergraduates to work over the entire year. We are grateful to our donors for their support of this important endeavor."

During her sophomore year at Berkeley, Brown was interviewed by her high school alma mater.  She stated in the interview, “I’m following an academic path and am not currently planning to go into industry. I’ve started academic research with a grad student this semester and intend to continue onto grad school and ultimately earn a PhD, ideally securing a research position.

“I prefer the fundamental questions in chemistry over applied questions. In industry you focus on applying chemistry to bring products to the consumer whereas in academic chemistry you investigate interesting questions that may not have applicability for 20-30 years. There is a lot to be done in fundamental chemistry.”

Brown’s research at MIT is currently focused on the reactivity and electronic structure of synthetic metal-chalcogenide clusters, with a particular interest in iron-sulfur clusters. In biological systems, these clusters catalyze synthetically challenging reactions such as the reduction of dinitrogen to ammonia. She is interested in understanding the mechanism of these reactions and in gleaning electronic structure information that could be used in the future to rationally design new catalysts for carrying out these reactions industrially.

The Hertz Foundation’s fellowship program is considered the gold standard for graduate fellowships. The program provides graduate students the freedom to do research and innovation through full financial support during their graduate work. To date, the foundation has granted 1,200 Fellowships. Fellows collectively possess more than 3,000 patents, have founded over 200 companies, and received more than 200 major national and international awards, including eight Breakthrough Prizes in Science, a Fields Medal, a Turing Award and two Nobel Prizes.