Episode 33: Nicole Petkovich on Materials Science, Moving to industry, and Old Web Nostalgia
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Hello, this is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s, the only science podcast I know about with no cis people allowed. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.
And today as our guest, we have Nicole Petkovich. Nicole is a materials chemist working in industry. She graduated from Duquesne University in 2008 with a BA in physics and a BS in chemistry. While at Duquesne, she did an NSF REU at the University of Minnesota and decided to attend there for graduate school. Her doctoral work focused on templated porous materials for both energy storage and conversion applications. In addition, she also did research on graphene oxide-based softeners for plastics. During her career, she has co-authored over 10 research articles and reviews and has multiple granted patents and filed patent applications. She lives in the Twin Cities with her wife and her weird little Gremlin dog and is trying to learn how to make synthesized music. It is going okay. Nicole, welcome to the show.
Thank you for coming on. So normally to start out, we ask people how they got interested in science. And then I want to go ahead and preempt that and say that after you answer that question, I would love to get clarifications on several things in your biography.
Oh, perfect. Well, in terms of getting into science, I’ve, I think I was kind of like doomed to going into as like a kid, I got like, really into certain things. One of them eventually was astronomy. And so I was actually really into the stars. And my dad would get Science Magazine and I remember like seeing, like, the first time they found exo-solar planets. And then I also was really interested in gemstones. And my dad and my mom indulged me in that – not like really expensive ones that I think really got me into the materials science and materials chemistry area. And then like, as I went through school science always was a passion of mine. And then I took a chemistry class in high school. And I really liked it. And for some reason, once I was looking at colleges, I was just like, I want to do material science or chemistry. And there I went from there. So.
So just starting your biography… let’s just go in order. Yeah.
That sounds good.
Yeah. So what are templated porous materials?
There’s a lot of different ways to kind of have porosity in materials. And something that a lot of material chemists and material scientists will call engineered porosity, and that’s deliberately synthesizing materials that contain some amount of porosity. And that’s in contrast to like, say mind materials are natural materials that also contain some amount of prosti Be it and kind of the structure of a rock or for a biological material, it grows in a certain way to like allow for safe transport of water or other things. But templates are basically things that you can kind of create a synthetic shell around them.
So one of the things I did when I was a graduate student is, we created something that was called A inverse opal structure, what we did, there is something kind of akin to the natural opal and a lot of these syntheses take, you can see inspirations in them in the applications from the natural world. But we would take basically a suspension of very small polymer spheres on the order of a couple 100 nanometers. And over time, you can either let those sediment by the force of gravity or you can send refuse them to kind of accelerate that process. But they’ll actually pack together in an ordered arrangement, we have all these little tiny ordered spheres of polymers, you can dry them, and then you can put a another material and they’ll take by like capillary action, it will draw this material into the spaces between the spheres, and you can burn out the spheres. And then you get a replica structure.
Just to reiterate, to make sure that I understand. So you basically have these materials like spheres, and they make kind of a pattern together.
And then you surround them with another material and the spheres themselves dissolve or get burned out. And then you have an empty space within the second material.
Yep, yeah. And that’s the the negative replica of what you started out with. And so you can kind of use that to kind of create an ordered array. So if, if having an ordered porosity is important. Using these kind of opal-like structures is one way of doing that and that’s, um, there’s certain applications for the kind of the utilizing and kind of harnessing and In light, and it’s called photonics. And one of the things is that these things can act as kind of diffraction can diffract light, visible light. So if you look at certain like, I mean like butterflies and stuff like that they have kind of this iridescent and the these structural colors. And this is one way of doing it. And by tuning the size of the spheres, you can get diffraction of certain wavelengths.
So then the question, what specifically are these things used for?
Well, right now, a lot of them are more experimental for certain are templated materials, something else or templated materials where you get things that are very, very small, and other types of porous materials that are at a very small length scale. So down to the nanometer scale, you can do things like separating out certain molecules, you can basically have a lot of surface area for reactions, or for hosting other molecules in there, you can also kind of functionalize a surface, so add things to the surface. So you can you know, potentially invention, these is for sensing up applications, because these things have like transport channels can also use it for energy applications, there’s a lot of things that can be done by harnessing basically, the fact that you’ve taken the material and where if you just had a sphere of in the same volume, you can by punching these holes in there, increase the surface area many, many times to the point where you’re getting like over 1000 meters squared per gram of material in just porosity at a very, very fine scale, so.
Wow. So next – graphene oxide-based tougheners for plastics. So there are there are a couple of things here.
Yeah, where do we want start at the graphene or the…?
[all laugh] Let’s break it down piece by piece, and then all together as an idea.
Okay, all right. So carbon is a very interesting element. So it’s in all sorts of organic things as usually with a lot of hydro atoms. So carbon, like in the inorganic forms, there’s different types of allotropes. One of them that’s really familiar to most people is graphite, and that’s kind of used in like pencil lead as a lubricant and other applications. But what it looks like at an atomic level is basically these hexagonal rings of carbon atoms arranged in a pattern across space, and there’s an interlayer spacing. So basically, there’s a void space between like semi infinite planes. And you can kind of imagine that as a stacked layer of these sheets of carbon. Now graphene is where, if you can imagine blowing up that sheet, and just taking a single layer of that there’s various ways of kind of trying to get just a single layer of graphene. And you can approach it several ways. But the methods that we were using were to kind of basically chemically oxidize graphite itself, and that starts to functionalize. And add the different atoms – like hetero atoms, mainly oxygen – to various sites, and it kind of makes the entire structure fall apart.
And so then you have something known as graphite oxide, which contains a lot of carbon oxygen bonds. So you can take that graphite oxide, recover it, purify it, and then re disperse it in a polar solvent like water, and that dispersion contains monolayer oxidized graphite, and it’s typically called graphene oxide. And from that, you can actually take that and then do chemical reactions, add functionalities to that surface. And then with that, you can kind of tailor its properties.
I do want to pluck out one string of what you mentioned, which is the term allotropes. I don’t know that a lot of people are probably familiar with that idea. And I was hoping that you could explain it.
Yeah. So allotropes are basically different arrangements that an element can have in space, carbon has a lot of these. So one of the allotropes would be basically graphite graphene, the single sheets would be another allotrope. That’s kind of an idea of what an allotrope is that you can have these different arrangements of a particular element. Carbon is kind of the quintessential one because it’s you also have Bucky balls, you have types of amorphous carbon, you have diamond. So because all of these have very, very different properties, that is a very active area of research because of how much the bonding configurations change the overall properties of the resultant allotrope.
So that’s, that’s graphene. So it’s graphene oxide, right?
Yeah, graphite is a fairly stable material even to burn it and it takes pretty high temperatures for flake graphite to start to oxidize. So what you have to do is kind of heat up basically the graphite in a bath of strong mineral acids and Add calcium per magnate, which is a strong oxidizing agent. And in that mill you, you get these manganese species that are extremely oxidizing. And that will actually attack the graphite itself and then start creating these oxygen functional groups on it and blow apart the entire structure. It’s not It’s not like the friendliest chemistry. Together, because it is a very, in a sense, a fairly robust material. So you have to resort to kind of you can’t use a delicate touch with it.
Wat are tougheners, then, for plastic?
so they’re fixed, basically just improve their mechanical properties. So the thing we were looking at is kind of things that would prevent the plastics from fracturing. So kind of adding materials to hopefully, like, toughen the plastic and make it more resilient.
Okay. So material science basically seems like trying to figure out how to manipulate properties of materials, so that they can suit a variety of applications best?
Yes, yeah. And it could, it comes back to something that we call kind of a structure property relationships. So you kind of have, that’s something that’s used a lot in kind of materials chemistry and material science, where you if you can understand kind of the fundamental structural aspects of a given material, you can maybe do things to kind of tailor that structure, and also influences properties. Or you can change materials to get different properties that are inherent to the composition of that. So yeah, it’s it’s a very interesting kind of interconnected discipline that draws on knowing about different applications, knowing about synthesis and knowing about how to characterize and determine certain properties that will be of value, or of interest for those applications.
Taking off from that I’m actually interested… normally at this point, we ask people if they can describe their own ongoing research, but I know because you’re in industry, that is, you know, a complicated problem.
But what’s interesting there, though, is also that you went into industry and sort of why you decided to do that, what led you to do that, and then also, the differences between your experiences in academia and then in industry?
So I was actually somewhat interested in teaching, I still do, like, kind of the instructing people and kind of like sharing knowledge and doing kind of that teaching aspects. And I mean, that’s something that I can also continue, like professionally as well, with professional organizations and whatnot. But I was kind of going down that track. And I, I, there were two things that kind of drew me away from it, I would say, first is the job market wasn’t great for that. [laughs] Um, not gonna lie…
[clearly joking] The job market in academia… bad?
It’s not… yeah. Yeah.
The hell, you say?
This is the first I’ve heard of it…
Yeah. And, and the other part, I think, was like, I had been in graduate school for a while. And one of the things to kind of get, like, look at like tenure track positions and stuff like that, and require another postdoc, and I kind of wanted to do something really different with my career. And I think going into industry was one way of doing that. And I also started talking to some people who had gone into industry and just seeing kind of hearing about the variety of different things that they experience on in industry, it kind of changed my mind on a lot of things. And then I just, it was near the end of my PhD, and then I shifted gears to try and get a job in industry. And that’s kind of how I ended up here.
Well, how is it at like, how, how’s it treating you?
It’s treating me well, I think, yeah, I mean, it’s… doing industrial science is, is different, because I mean, there’s a lot of things that are very much bounded by, you’re looking to make things that are profitable for a company. So you’re looking at the business factors, you’re looking at environmental health and safety factors that go into that. You’re looking at patentability. Can you intellectual, can you protect the intellectual property that you generate? And that kind of changes how you also do some experimentation for making sure that you can patent something or getting good examples for that. Um, yeah, so it’s an interplay of like a lot of different layers that you don’t really have in an academic experience. So it’s, it’s very interesting, it’s very collaborative, especially with a larger organization, since you have a lot of talent with different areas of expertise. And there’s things that you can do to enrich yourself and to continue, like, learning as well. But you kind of also, it’s a very, yeah, it very much behooves you to kind of, in in kind of the larger kind of firms to work with your fellow scientists in a very collaborative way to get things done.
Yeah, so it’s, it’s a very, very different experience from academia. And some people really like it. And some people like will go into industry for a while, get their toes wet, and then go back into academia. So I’ve seen both which people entering and exiting, so it doesn’t like kind of reach equilibrium, right out of the starting gate of like graduate school or postdoc. But you know, you’ll have people go back and forth. And I know, there’s some very major material science professors at various universities who were in industry for a bit and then went and took became professors.
You know, it’s interesting, the way you’ve described it, because, you know, at least my experience, there’s sort of been the stereotype that oh, you know, within academia, you know, there’s just so much bureaucracy you have to cut through and with industry, you don’t have that, but it sounds like, no, industry has its own helping a bureaucracy?
Well, yeah, I mean, in the sense, you have to… there’s, there’s a lot of, you know, rules and regulations that need to be followed in order to, I mean, one of the big aspects of that is, it’s not necessarily I mean, it’s beauraucracy for a good reason, um, is kind of the health and safety aspects of what you’re doing. I mean, that’s a very critical role that one has to kind of look at when they’re developing different technologies. But there’s… yeah, I mean, there’s a lot to it in terms of, you know, manufacturability, etc, etc.
So, I mean, there’s going to be always bureaucracy, you go, can’t get rid of it. But I think it’s, it’s the biggest thing, I think, is kind of the different end goal and a kind of a greater diversity of certain things you have to take into consideration that would not be present in academia. I mean, for instance, we don’t have to write grants. But you know, there’s a, I mean, but actually, I shouldn’t say that some, some researchers within companies will actually write grants as well, and will partner up with other organizations to do early stage research on national labs or even universities. So in a sense, you get, if you really want to, you can kind of get everything aside from students, like, like undergrads and grad students, though, I mean, they can end up working for you as like tech aids or technicians or whatever.
Who needs undergrads anyway, you know what I mean? Yeah, bunch of nerds. Yeah, well, I’m interested… are… in industry and academic material sciences oriented around different questions, do you know what I mean? Like, is the material science that happens at universities within academia, usually more theoretical than, like, applied?
Uh, it really depends. It depends on the company, it depends on what stage the research is at it. It’s, it’s, it’s really hard to answer that, because there is actually a lot of overlap that can occur with that. I mean, and in the sense, like, a lot of the even the grants that are being and in academia, I mean, you want to work on something that hopefully at some point, will generate maybe some sort of result that would be relevant for like, a greater corpus of knowledge or to a specific application. But yeah, it’s it’s, it’s, it’s highly variable. And like some of that, like, I mean, if you’re, like, say, looking for a career in industry, you can kind of look at and see what how different companies kind of balance that out and what they’re kind of mo is for, how they’re going about that similar to looking at different academic groups with regards to if they do more of a theoretical work or very, very strongly applied, and maybe even to the point where they have really strong industry partnerships, where you can do some very focused research towards certain, certain very, like, well-lined-out goals. So.
Yeah, industry, it’s, it’s… in a very real way it’s extremely exotic to me as somebody whose focus in a discipline which literally has no industrial application.
I feel that, Charles.
Well, listen, it’s we haven’t gotten there yet, but someday, I mean, fingers crossed, I guess? There will be a weird alien industrial complex.
I’ll get in on the ground floor.
Yeah, you just gotta, you just gotta hang in there long enough.
Alien industrial complex sounds like you know, like they’ve been invaded. It sounds like like V or something like that.
You know what? It’s, I actually to take a brief tangent, I would like us all to think about what the best case scenario of an alien industrial complex might be. Because I have my answer.
Um, pretty much whatever the culture is, from Ian Banks’ The Culture Series, where society is run by these omni-benevolent, and all powerful AI who also have really good sense of humor, and are slightly eccentric, and just like, go around helping other civilizations like, advance if they want to, so that would be my ideal.
Oh, I’m just like, picturing dark places right now. [all laugh] Because anything was industrial and alien tends to be like, you know, here’s this tube. Goodbye.
I mean, you’re not wrong. No, I’ll give you… I’ll give you another minute to think about it while giving my answer, which is that my first thought is just a huge industry catering to all of the like weird perverts that definitely exist in our cultures, and probably in alien cultures, because the first thing I always think about with alien contact, is all of the horny people on earth – God bless them – who definitely, their first thought is, how do we all have sex with each other? And if you think there isn’t going to be a robust market, for sex toys, for new forms of prophylactics, you name it. And I think that could be a very, you know, a weird and horny but overall positive experience for the world.
I mean, if, like, if the success of the Mass Effect series has indicated anything, I believe you are definitely onto something.
Yeah, for this just… when you were saying them like, Oh, this is just going to some sort of Cronenberg level horror.
Listen, if you think there are NOT Cronenberg-horror type kinks out there – reassess.
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean…
Gonna tell my dad not to listen to this episode. It’s material science, dad, you won’t, you won’t understand. Oh dear, but yes. So talking about industry. Unless you have anything more to say on the contrast between industry and academia, I am actually interested in, given like an ideal circumstance, what kind of driving questions in material science you would most like to work on?
Oh, that’s actually very interesting. Um, I think I’ve, I’ve done a lot of research in a renewable energy, both in terms of generation and storage. So I think actually looking at the questions about how to efficiently store energy at different durations for different types of grids, kind of the aspects of how that integrates kind of also on like a socio cultural level, and kind of the economics behind that, that that would be kind of the areas that I would be very interested in. I remember when I was a kid, like reading Scientific American and like, seeing like, fuel cells are gonna be like 10 years in the future, and they weren’t 10 years in the future. I mean, they’re, they’re coming. There’s a lot more now. And a lot of push now with that, and especially like, fuel cell vehicles from like, like the Toyota Mariah and stuff like that, but like, that kind of, yeah, like localized energy generation, localized energy storage. That’s that’s kind of stuff that really, really, really interests me.
Can you define what makes a fuel cell? Basically?
Oh, yeah, so it’s an electrochemical device used for the controlled oxidation of a fuel to produce a potential difference in the electronic circuit and thus powering it. There’s a lot of different types of fuel cells. But for a typical hydrogen fuel cell, that one utilizes the redox reaction of hydrogen, oxygen, via those gases flowing into a stack of cells and the appropriate half reactions taking place in the anode and cathode chambers of that set of those, there’s a lot of different types of fuel cells, you have the reactions occurring on two sides of kind of the cell and things diffusing across a membrane to maintain charge balance and stuff like that. So I mean, it’s, it’s basically an electric of means of kind of electrochemical generation of power.
And this may be a silly question, but what distinguishes a fuel cell from a battery?
That’s, it’s a good question. I mean, for basically, so there’s a lot of overlap in that. And especially looking at it for the, for fuel cells, you can kind of look at, I mean, some of them have are pure, like, it’s gases are being fed into it from kind of both sides. You for batteries, you typically have, basically, they’re solid, solid state, and they might have a liquid electrolyte inside them. There are also batteries known as flow batteries, where you actually have a flowing electrolyte that basically is the is kind of the energy storage medium that will be pumped into both sides of a cell, I mean, you can actually have, like flow batteries that also have little particles in them where those particles will act.
So well, then my final question before our final final question, is there anything about material science that you just want people to know?
Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s a very interesting field, because it really is kind of a kind of a central point. And you can see, with material science, where chemistry, biology and physics will all be involved along with aspects of modeling, it’s it’s a very vibrant kind of place where it’s kind of interconnected with a lot of different disciplines. And it’s it, that’s one of the things that always is kind of, if you’re someone who really likes learning about things, or likes, kind of looking at different types of systems are different types of materials or envisioning different how things go into certain applications, or how these properties can kind of be tailored and stuff like that. It’s, I think, a very rewarding field in that sense, because it it again, occupies kind of this very centralized location that like can draw on so many different, um, other disciplines. So maybe, maybe I’m just doing a pitch for materials chemistry.
I’m not gonna stop ya’.
Yeah, yeah, I’m just chilling here.
Well, I think, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s always… to, to bring it back to me, it is always because like, I wanted to be an entomologist, you know, when I was seven years old, because like, you know, I was able to go outside and be like, Look, bugs. I like those, you know? Like, entomology in that way – and this is the background of a lot of entomologists, that as kids, they really liked insects, and then they just followed that all the way to a career – whereas, you know, I don’t think that there are probably a lot of seven year olds who are like, I want to go into material science.
No, it’s not. I think that’s like less of a, like, the kid would have to be a pretty intense nerd. Like, oh, man, I want to design the next material.
No, but yeah. This leads us into the final section of the pod where we ask our guests to weigh in on one of several recurring questions.
I think I’ll go with the fourth one because I was like, thinking about these questions and like, I was like, you know, if the apocalypse happened, I would be eaten by like possums or raccoons within like, five hours like [laughs] I wouldn’t even make it a day.
So I know I’m there with you.
I’m like, day after the apocalypse? No, I’m one of the ones that just gets like incinerated or whatever, like in the flashy Hollywood’s scene.
I mean, it’s nice to know these things about yourself.
Yeah, I would be incinerated, that’s fine.
I’ll actually talk about like the, the medical advances… one of the things I would like to see as kind of more research on kind of like, we know that love stuff with HRT are pretty safe, like in the medium term. And there’s still some questions in the long term in terms of kind of, you know, what might be some of the side effects and stuff like that going forward, and it looks like it’s pretty good. But I’ve read some articles on like PubMed, where they’re like, well, we still don’t know, like how optimizing, say, a certain HRT regime might decrease any of the risks and like, get it to levels that are very, I mean, extremely excellent. And so like, that’s kind of what I’d like to see. And also like, maybe some how maybe like HRT could be better used for, like non binary people. And yeah, I think that would be interesting near term stuff that I hope some epidemiologists and like clinicians take on soon.
Well, it is weird to think about in the grand scheme of Earth… because there are cultural traditions scattered hither and yon, where there are basically exogenous hormones used, but in terms of contemporary synthesized hormones, they’ve, you know, they’ve literally only existed for about a century.
Yeah. And it’s, yeah, and it’s, and it’s only been until recently that you’ve been getting really, really large cohorts doing the, the standard, like feminizing and masculinizing. HRT and yeah, it’s, it’s, I think it’s an interesting thing, where it’s like, yeah, like the scientists and the articles will freely admit, like, I, you know, there’s probably there, there could be something better out there. And we’re just going to have to, like, get the data sets, look into it and figure it out. And so that’s, that’s kind of my hope – I’m not getting any younger!
[laughs] Linear time!
No, I love getting older even… because I used to be in my early 20s, I would hear about people’s bodies, like, starting to hurt and fail them in their late 20s. And I was like, Oh, no. And now I’m, I’m here knocking at the door of 28. And I started experiencing some of these bodily aches and pains. But, I, you know, in a weird way, I kind of like it. I feel like it was I was always born to be old. And I’ve just been waiting to be an old man my whole life. So even if I don’t like literally like that my back aches in some way. I like enjoy. Oh, I’m getting older.
Yeah, I enjoy more the perspective of age and just like looking back and being like, man, I, I had no idea what was going on there.
I just hink about sometimes how seriously a lot of people took me when I was 17 years old. I’m just like, Oh, God, why don’t take me seriously when I’m 16! Come on.
See, what I was when I was 16, we just had like Xenga blogs and all of that.
Yeah, I am glad like I was a Xenga girl. And all of that got deleted. It’s in a like, a bunch of early millennials have like the most embarrassing long form information about their personal lives as high school students and it’s gone, and thank God for that.
I really feel for all of the Gen Z kids.
It’s like cuz I really think the the generational divide is that like, cuz I’m a young, younger Sherman lineal. I’m like, because I was born in 93, which is, in the last few years of millennial and for me, you know, Facebook and live journal and Tumblr and wherever were part of my life in high school, but they weren’t. Like, we didn’t have Instagram. That came a little bit later, there wasn’t this constant sort of sense of surveillance through social media. It was like, an extra thing that people would go on. But then this is really the definitive thing, I think, is that I was growing up in a time pre smartphone. And thus, before those things were with you literally constantly. Feel for ’em, feel for ’em.
Yeah, yeah, I lifted I was born in ’85. So I lived in like the the non internet days partially. Yeah, wow.
Although speaking of journals, you know, you mentioned it’s a good thing they’re all deleted. So I discovered that I could actually recover a few of my entries using the Internet Archive because of how a handful of them had been stored. And oh my god. It was like, Who is this person even?
Did you also like have like the, “oh my God, I am so profound I’m going to put these thoughts down because I am the most profound person, I’m in college, I’m profound!” [laughs]
I’m definitely I’m that was crunch. There wasn’t a lot, but there were definitely a few a few entries that were like that where I’m like, at one point, I was like talking about how I felt so much older and wiser than the girl I was dating as a sophomore. And the girl was a freshman and…
Like, you got to be kidding me.
No, I put the writing that I thought was really profound on deviantArt.
Because I didn’t do visual art. I was like, I want to participate. Oh dear, I did have a Xenga, but that’s because I got into blogging very, very early. Xenga was on its way out when I was… and then I had LiveJournal, of course, and I have blogspot and Tumblr. I’ve had all, I’ve had all the blogging.
Oh God, like I have some of those Xenga posts saved. One of them was just so like, melodramatic. Like just I was like, I’m gonna delete you forever so I don’t have to deal with knowing that I wrote this.
Nicole, you’ve been a fantastic guest.
It’s been a real treat. If people want to find out more about you or your past research that isn’t shrouded in mystery, where should they look?
Well I have a, I have a Google Scholar page, so if you just look up my name, Nicole Petkovich, you can find that. I also created a professional-ish Twitter account yesterday and I’m blanking on the name that will be
probably won’t get published until March or April
real quick Okay, well you sent me the empty little one number one number one because
I was like trying to put like the empty little spaces and then it’s just like I’m gonna truncate this in like this way and I’m like, really Twitter Come on.
I love that this Twitter account name is like simultaneously a reference to your professional research and porosity. Yeah, but also sounds a little bit like an emo 13 year old.
and just you know, this is not meant offensively at all but what better encapsulation of like the experience of a lot of you know adult trans people. Yeah, you know.
“Nicole Petkoviche’s The Empty Little Spaces” by Fall Out Boy.
I have like more like mascara and like really like just high level like smoky eye like in my eyes.
Yeah. fingerless gloves that are also fishnet for some reason. Really live out the fantasy
Okay, if if anybody wants to find me I am on Twitter @cockroacharles.
I am on Twitter @spacermase.
The show is on Twitter @ASABpod and at our website asabpodcast.com, where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode.
And until next time, keep on science-ing.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai