NDSU chemist wins prestigious Sloan Fellowship

NDSU’s Svetlana Kilina was named one of 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers to receive the Sloan Fellowship, making her the first scientist at NDSU – or in North Dakota, for that matter – to be given this prestigious honor.

Svetlana Kilina says it was difficult initially to convince students of the appeal of computational chemistry.

While conventional “wet lab” chemistry beckons with its bubbling brews, sophisticated instruments and sometimes dramatic conversion of one substance to another, computational chemistry works its magic in a far less exotic environment: an office with a computer.

But that’s changing. Students have begun seeking out Kilina’s Ladd Hall lab with requests to join her research group. That’s partly because the associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry is making a name for herself in her field of study. Recently, Kilina was named one of 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers to receive the Sloan Fellowship, making her the first scientist at NDSU – or in North Dakota, for that matter – to be given this prestigious honor.

The fellowship is given to early-career scientists and scholars whose potential and achievements identify them as the next generation of scientific leaders. Since the first award was given in 1955, 42 of those fellows have gone on to win a Nobel Prize in their respective fields and 63 have received the National Medal of Science.

“When I looked at those who have been awarded this fellowship – many who are from well-known universities like Harvard, Stanford or Duke –I didn’t believe I would get it,” Kilina says. “But of course I’m happy to be in such nice company.”

Kilina’s research blends renewable energy, high-performance computing, nanotechnology and chemistry.

More specifically, she is studying how quantum dots – nanocrystals so minute that billions could fit on the head of a pin – could maximize conversion of solar energy in new-generation solar cells and fuel cells. Quantum dots have the potential to convert light to electric energy – or vice versa – much more efficiently than conventional energy materials such as silicon. Her findings could help dramatically optimize solar cells, sensors, optoelectronic devices and bio-imaging technology.

Kilina uses supercomputers to conduct computer-simulated experiments, investigate and advance her research in this field. Her goal is to generate theoretical insights to the surface chemistry of quantum dots, which are critical to design lighter, more affordable and more efficient nanosize materials for solar energy conversion and lighting applications.

To apply her model and algorithmic methods, Kilina’s research group uses the supercomputers at the NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology, or CCAST, in addition to the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, governed by the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Laboratory. “We are very lucky to have such cutting-edge computational facilities at NDSU, which are comparable in their performance to supercomputers at national labs,” she says.

Insights from Kilina’s work could enable the advancement of solar energy technology to help solve the world’s energy concerns, says Gregory Cook, NDSU professor and chair of NDSU’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, who nominated Kilina.

“The heavy dependence of today’s society on fossil fuels poses major environmental, economic and societal concerns,” Cook says. “Developing alternative and more sustainable energy platforms represents a grand challenge and demands technological innovations in many related fields. Dr. Kilina’s research at NDSU is well positioned to address some of these key challenges.”

A native of Belarus, a former Soviet republic, Kilina moved to the United States in 2001.  She earned a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 2007, and completed a coveted two-year Director’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at Los Alamos National Lab before joining NDSU as a junior faculty member in 2010.

The Sloan Fellowship includes $50,000 to advance her research. This award, along with a 2012 Department of Energy Earlier Career Research Award of $750,000, will ensure that the graduate and post-graduate students on her team can devote themselves entirely to research.

That team includes graduate students Peng Cui, Naveen Dandu and Brendan Griffordas well as undergrads Mary Hedrick, Levi Lystrom and recently graduated Dinusha Peiris.

Kilina is grateful not only for how the award will help advance her own research, but also for the message it will send to these young and aspiring scientists. “It shows them that the things we are doing are appreciated by the world and all of the scientific community,” she says. “I think it encourages them very much to clearly see what success they can reach if they continue on this career path.”

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