Inside USD

Getting to Know Your Professors: Lauren Benz

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chemistry Professor Lauren Benz’ research focuses on incredibly small molecules but it could lead to some big results in collecting greenhouse gases and fighting global warming. Benz, who joined USD’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2009 as the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of  Chemistry, was recently featured in a brochure for the prestigious Clare Boothe Luce program, the single most significant source of private support for women in science, mathematics and engineering. Professor Benz talks about her work and her interests in promoting undergraduate research and women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

Q: Much of your work focuses on nanoporous hybrid networks. Can you explain what that involves and how your research is going?

Nanoporous materials are solid materials that have very tiny pores within their structure, sort of like a sponge but with holes on the nanoscale. Because of the high surface area that results, these materials have high potential for gas storage, including for carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. We can measure the absorption of CO2 by thin films made of these materials and study the fundamental interaction between various energy-relevant gases and the films we prepare.

Our research is going very well – two of my students – Andrew Cerro ’14 and Amber Mosier ’15 – presented a poster on their work at the national American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas, Texas this spring and their work will be submitted to the Journal of Physical Chemistry for publication. It would also be fantastic to design a nanoporous material that could not only store CO2 but could also convert it into something more useful. This is something we are very excited about that we plan to investigate in the near future.

Q: You received a five-year award of $600,000 from the Clare Boothe Luce program and were recently featured in one of its brochures highlighting its work. Can you elaborate on how the program has impacted your career?

Thanks to the stewardship of Professor Debbie Tahmassebi, who is currently special assistant to the provost, and Professor Tammy Dwyer, who is currently the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, a professorship was established at USD prior to my arrival in 2009 jointly by USD and the Clare Boothe Luce program, the single largest private source of funding for women in STEM fields.

The grant allowed for some additional discretionary funds within the first five years for professional development, and allowed me to hire students over the summer and purchase additional supplies and equipment critical to my research immediately. The program was very helpful in allowing me to quickly establish a successful research program with my students.

I am incredibly grateful for all of the support I’ve received from my mentors, my department, USD and several funding agencies who have supported me along the way, including the Clare Boothe Luce program.

Q: You’ve also recently received a Faculty Early Career Development grant from the National Science Foundation that will allow you to hire two students each summer for the next five years. How are students becoming involved in your research?

Students in my group get a very hands-on experience.  They learn how to run experiments independently using  high-level instrumentation, and most importantly they develop strong critical thinking skills since very often they encounter challenging, unexpected problems that they must solve before taking the next step. Students are also often included in the publication of the work, reading over and contributing to the publications themselves so that they develop a real sense of ownership in their work. These kinds of experiences are incredibly helpful as students get a chance to apply general concepts they learn in class and take it a step further.

Q: One of your goals is also to promote women in STEM fields at USD. What projects are you involved with in those efforts?

I am particularly interested in the transition from the postdoctoral phase to a tenure-track academic position. There are many highly qualified women interested in academia that hold both a PhD degree and postdoctoral experience who, for a variety of reasons, do not end up becoming full professors even though they begin down that road. Reasons for this vary and include both the stresses of raising a family as well as more subtle societal gender expectations. I recently started brainstorming with other female STEM faculty on ways to create a network to offer more support for postdoctoral candidates to pursue academic careers.  In addition, I plan to help host several events for faculty at USD, including writing events with the support of the CEE and yearly invited speakers/workshops geared towards issues that are relevant to female STEM faculty.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your life outside USD and what hobbies and interests you enjoy?

I was born in Coventry, R.I. and after hopping from coast to coast a few times, I now I live in the Mira Mesa area of San Diego with my husband, Marcel.  I enjoy hiking and camping with friends and family—especially locally in the Palm Desert area and neighboring mountain ranges.  More recently I’ve gotten into yoga and weight training—both great stress relievers!

– Liz Harman

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