COSAM News Articles 2022 May First Auburn student awarded prestigious U.S. Department of Energy fellowship

First Auburn student awarded prestigious U.S. Department of Energy fellowship

Published: 05/24/2022

By: Maria Gebhardt

Benjamin Jackson, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Auburn University, has been awarded a fellowship by the U.S. Department of Energy’s, or DOE, Office of Science Graduate Student Research, or SCGSR, program.

He is among 80 other graduate students who will receive funding to conduct part of their graduate thesis research in residence at a DOE national laboratory. As part of this honor, Jackson will spend three months, starting in June, working at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or PNNL, in Richland, Washington.

“For decades, DOE has cultivated the expertise to meet the nation’s greatest scientific challenges. Now more than ever, we need to invest in a diverse, talented pipeline of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who will be the future science and innovation leaders of this country,” said Under Secretary of Science and Innovation Geraldine Richmond. “I’m thrilled these outstanding students will help us tackle critical research at our labs, and I know their futures are bright.”

Jackson is the first student at Auburn to be selected for this prestigious nationwide program.  

“Being part of the scientific process is extremely rewarding,” said Jackson. “Through my research, I am helping to expand what we understand and contribute to new solutions that could have a significant, long-term impact.”

Jackson’s graduate advisor, Evangelos Miliordos, encouraged him to apply for the program.

“Benjamin is one of these students who is exceptional at both performing research and communicating his findings, and he is not afraid of diving into new areas,” said Miliordos. “He saw his participation to the DoE's SCGSR program as a great opportunity to apply molecular dynamics, a new area for him and my lab, under the supervision of experts in this field. His plan to further study the chemical reactivity of the materials he studies for his Ph.D. will come true. This is a very competitive award, and I feel proud of his accomplishment.”

Jackson’s research focuses on the use of computational chemistry to study the electronic structure and chemical properties of molecular systems with diffuse electrons.

“We study solvated electron precursors, or SEPs. These systems offer promising applications in energy storage and catalysis,” he said.

The program provides Jackson with a residency at PNNL and the opportunity to work along a DOE scientist, Roger Roussaeu, in the Physical Sciences Division. Jackson’s research will address the DOE’s Office of Science priority research area: Basic Science for Clean Energy and Decarbonization.

“I will be studying the structure of lithium-ammonia expanded metal solutions at ambient temperatures and whether we are able to use these to catalyze the conversion of carbon dioxide,” said Jackson. “Our research has already demonstrated the ability of these systems to capture and convert carbon dioxide in the gas phase; this is the next step computationally to develop these systems for practical applications. This is important, as it’s a possible means of tackling pollution and climate change by converting a greenhouse gas to something we could use a fuel source or in industrial synthesis.”

Earlier this year, he was recognized with a Dean’s Research Awards in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM.

“Benjamin’s dedication to his research helped him stand out as a recipient of the Dean’s Research Awards,” said Mark Liles, acting associate dean for research and graduate studies in COSAM. “At the awards ceremony, his presentation no doubt inspired future graduate students to pursue a career in research.” 

His presentation, Condensed Phase Solvated Electron Precursors: Applications in Catalysis, discussed his work studying gas-phase SEPs while at Auburn. Going forward, he plans to use these results to design and study brand new materials based on SEPs.

His journey has also evolved throughout his college experience.

As a Florida native, Jackson grew up in Santa Rosa County near the Alabama border. He attended the University of South Alabama for his undergraduate degree. He was set on studying medicine in the Mobile-based university and eventually becoming a doctor. His mother, a nurse, had inspired his interest in the subject from a young age.

However, that all changed in his first-year general chemistry courses.

“My chemistry professor at the time, Dr. Stenson, invited me to shadow in her research lab at South,” Jackson explained. “I started spending a couple hours each week helping out with experiments and collecting data in her lab. By the end of the semester, I was hooked and wound up spending the next four years working in her lab. Her invitation and that experience changed a lot for me, and through it I fell in love with chemistry and research and couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

His quality of work in the lab made an impression on Alexandra Stenson, a professor of chemistry at the University of South Alabama. 

“One of Ben's most invaluable contributions to the papers we published together was bringing my amateurish, old-school Excel-generated figures, possessing the panache and grace of finger paintings, into the 21st century by converting them into polished, publication-amenable graphics,” said Stenson.

Jackson is looking forward to continuing in chemical research, either working in a national laboratory or in industry after he defends his thesis and completes his doctorate degree.

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