Inside USD

Luce Fund Fuels New Clean Energy Professor

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New University of San Diego professor Lauren Benz likes to talk about “the hydrogen economy,” but she doesn’t teach in the business school.

Instead, Benz is a chemist whose cutting-edge research focuses on the development of new energy sources through the creation of novel “nanoporous” materials with millions of tiny pores that can store large amounts of clean-burning fuels such as hydrogen. She also will be researching the removal of sulfur and other toxins from existing petroleum supplies.

Benz, whose position is funded by a grant of nearly $600,000 from the Clare Boothe Luce Program — the most significant source of private support for women in science, engineering and mathematics — plans to start a research program related to surface science with the goal of investigating novel materials for energy-relevant applications. “The supported materials I am interested in are ‘metal-organic frameworks,’” she said. “These materials can be synthesized to be nonporous, so they have large surface areas and are capable of trapping large amounts of gas.”

The term “hydrogen economy” is used to describe the potential of harnessing the power of hydrogen and oxygen to provide energy without the emission of harmful greenhouse gases, she said, pointing out that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already drives a Hummer fueled by hydrogen.

“We are excited to have a named professorship, particularly such a prestigious fellowship whose goal is the support and development of women scientists,” said Debbie Tahmassebi, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Professor Benz brings great expertise in solid state chemistry, materials and surface science, areas that greatly expand the breadth of the department. Her work in improving materials for gas storage and clean fuel production are of great interest to our students.”

Just 158 Luce professorships have been established since the program was created in 1989, following a bequest of more than $60 million from Clare Boothe Luce, the noted playwright, U.S. ambassador and congresswoman. The program also supports undergraduate research and post-graduate fellowships.

“The Luce Foundation was especially impressed with the chemistry department’s rapid increase in the number of female chemistry and biochemistry majors,” Tahmassebi said. “Of our current majors, 62 percent are female.”

Research is now a requirement for undergraduate chemistry students at USD. “Both teaching and research are strong here and that was very attractive to me,” said Benz, who earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island, a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and did post-graduate work at Harvard University. She also worked at Pfizer Inc., doing research on the stability of a slow-release formulation of Ziprasidone, a drug used to treat schizophrenia.

At USD, Benz also hopes to start a support group for young women interested in careers in science. While men and women are graduating in roughly equal numbers in chemistry, women are not keeping pace with men over time in graduate school or positions in academia and industry. While some of this disparity has to due with women leaving work to bear children, she thinks there also may be some subtle stereotypes or perceptions in the workplace that might be impeding their progress. She wants to start a conversation, also including men, that would make women more aware of these perceptions and help empower them to reach their full potential.

— Liz Harman

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