Thomas ’01 Seeks Way to Use Solar Energy to Make New Fuels

As her work on alternative energy garners accolades, Christine Thomas ’01 is finding her greatest satisfaction in the accomplishments of her students.

Thomas, an assistant professor of chemistry at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is a recipient of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, which recognizes early-career scientists for their potential to make substantial contributions to their field. She also was featured on the April 4 NOVA special, “Hunting the Elements,” focused on the elements of life such as oxygen, carbon, hydrogen.

A chemistry graduate and Lafayette legacy (father, John ’70; grandfather, Edward ’31; uncle, William ’58), Thomas first glimpsed her future career while conducting research with Chip Nataro, associate professor of chemistry. The pair collaborated on an investigation into the synthesis and electrochemistry of inorganic complexes.

“With his explanations and techniques, Chip brought the classroom experience into the laboratory,” says Thomas, who was the student speaker at the dedication of Lafayette’s Hugel Science Center in 2000. “After working in his lab, I realized I wanted to be like Chip someday. I wanted to run a research lab. I wanted to teach. I wanted the whole thing.”

Thomas completed her doctorate in inorganic chemistry at California Institute of Technology, where as a graduate teaching assistant she won the 2006 award for excellence in teaching. She completed postdoctoral research under professors Marcetta Darensbourg and Michael Hall at Texas A&M University, College Station. She participated in work to mimic an enzyme that produces hydrogen — an alternative to fossil fuels.

For her first teaching assignment, Thomas looked for an opportunity to combine the intimate atmosphere of a small liberal arts college with the research opportunities of a large university. Her search took her to Brandeis.

“It’s small enough that you really get to know and build relationships with most of the undergraduate chemistry majors. But at the same time, I have had all of the resources I need to build and maintain a renowned research program,” she says.

In her laboratory, Thomas and a team of 20 postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students are synthesizing “new ligands and transition metal complexes with the goal of uncovering new approaches to the catalytic activation and functionalization of small molecules and organic substrates,” she says. “These processes are critical for the development of sustainable energy technology and the catalysis of organic transformations.”

Thomas says teaching gives her the feeling that she’s making a difference in someone’s life. “In the future, we’re going to need another generation of scientists who are just as excited and just as motivated and can use new knowledge to make the same sort of strides forward. That’s the best contribution I can make.”

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