Jane Sedlak graduated from Oberlin College in 2019 with a degree in chemistry and was named the winner of Oberlin’s Nexial Prize. Given to a student who demonstrates academic excellence and an interest in cultural study, the Nexial Prize comes with a $50,000 award, which afforded Sedlak the opportunity following graduation to study art conservation at the Louvre in Paris. She is currently a graduate student at University of California San Diego.
Describe the work you are doing at UC San Diego?
I am currently a first-year graduate student in the lab of Vicki Grassian at UC San Diego in the chemistry and biochemistry department. My research focuses on the chemistry of wildfire smoke. Growing up in California, I’ve seen the wildfires get worse and worse every year, to the point where smoke from one fire impacts the entire state and sometimes even the rest of the United States. In my research, I’m working to understand what people are exposed to when they breathe wildfire smoke, and how the smoke changes as it travels in the atmosphere.
What do you enjoy most about your current work?
That’s a tough question—it’s all fun. Right now, I’d say teaching an introductory chemistry lab. Students are excited to be back in lab after remote learning, and helping them carry out their first reactions reminds me why I decided to be a chemistry major.
What was your overall experience like at Oberlin and how did you spend your time?
I really enjoyed the fact that Oberlin allowed me to combine my interest in science and the arts. In high school, I used art to explore challenging concepts in science such as climate change; the process helped me to hone my ideas about science. At Oberlin, my science professors encouraged me to explore all my interests, whether that was taking a seminar on Pompeii in the classics department or traveling to Indonesia as part of a Winter Term course about culture and sustainability.
A big part of my Oberlin experience was attending talks, seminars, and performances. There are incredible scholars at Oberlin, and the college brings incredible speakers to the campus. I loved hearing about the research that my peers and professors were carrying out on different parts of campus. The students at Oberlin are talented, and it was always mind-blowing to attend a recital, theater performance, or an opera and see another side of my lab partner, the kitchen crew at Keep Co-op, or my friends. Being at Oberlin and around such talented people inspired me to expand my interests. Oberlin also provided me with an incredibly supportive and loving community. Being a part of Keep (I still miss baking in an industrial kitchen) and my study groups for chemistry classes helped me through challenging semesters. The people I met at Oberlin continue to be an incredibly important part of my life.
How did your Oberlin experience lead you to your current position?
During my senior year at Oberlin I wasn’t sure where my science journey was headed next. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I wasn’t sure what kind of chemistry I wanted to specialize in. I’ve always wanted to study applied chemistry, and use chemistry to solve environmental problems, but I’m also drawn to fundamental chemistry and am fascinated by mechanisms and kinetics. My senior thesis in the lab of Professor Matt Elrod helped me find an area of research that combines these interests: atmospheric chemistry. Although atmospheric science is incredibly complex, Professor Elrod helped me to simplify the system to study a class of compounds that are frequently detected in the atmosphere, but no one knows how they’re formed. For my senior thesis, I used spectroscopic methods taught in organic chemistry to generate mechanisms to explain the formation of these compounds (work that we recently published). My experience in Professor Elrod’s lab made me realize I wanted to continue to study atmospheric chemistry, which is what I’m doing now in graduate school.
You were a Nexial Prize winner, what opportunities did this create for you?
The Nexial Prize was a game changer for me. It enabled me to study with a team of researchers at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, the research and restoration lab in the basement of the Louvre Museum. I focused on understanding the photodegradation of art objects using laboratory methods I had learned at Oberlin. This experience was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I had the chance to see the Louvre’s conservation studios, to talk with conservators about restoration theory and techniques, and to immerse myself in learning a new language (the working language was French). The Nexial Prize gave me the freedom to design my own experiments and to collaborate with researchers at some of the best institutes and museums in Europe.
When the Louvre closed due to COVID in March 2020, I returned to the U.S. to work with a beamline scientist at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, studying the chemistry of historical art pigments. Having the chance to work through an X-ray dataset piqued my interest in using X-ray spectroscopy. I hope to use the methods I learned at Stanford in my aerosol research.
What are your plans for the future?
I recently received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program award to continue studying the heterogeneous chemistry of wildfire smoke, and I look forward to immersing myself in that project this summer. In the long term, I hope to continue to explore my passions for environmental chemistry, teaching, and integrating art into science curriculums.
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