Budding scientist finds perfect chemistry at Sweet Briar, presents research at national conference

Posted on April 25, 2017 by Janika Carey

Earlier this month, chemistry major Rachel Higgins ’17 traveled to San Francisco to present her senior research at the 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition. The topic: “Synthesis, X-Ray Structure, and Electrocatalytic Reduction of CO2 by [Pd(dpk)2Cl2].”

Rachel Higgins ’17 presents her research Rachel Higgins ’17 presents her research at the 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition.

“The first step of photosynthesis involves placing an electron on CO2,” Higgins explains. “In nature, chlorophyll functions as the electrocatalyst for this process. Scientists have not yet figured out how to make chlorophyll work outside the living cell. My research involved developing alternative catalysts that can mimic the function of photosynthesis and create carbon-carbon bonds from CO2.”

A travel grant from the Honors Program helped Higgins realize her big goal — or one of them, anyway.

“Coming into this year, I had several goals for what I wanted to do with chemistry,” says the Manassas native. “They were: to be inducted into Iota Sigma Pi, to present my research at a conference, and to work on getting an article published. I was inducted this semester, and I never anticipated presenting at the national meeting.”

Looking to check off numbers two and three, Higgins submitted an abstract to the American Chemical Society in October. In January, she found out it had been accepted. Meanwhile, Higgins also came across an internship with the society. She applied right away — and got it. This summer, the business minor is headed to Washington, D.C., to work in the society’s publications department. The department produces 51 scholarly journals, including the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society and the weekly trade magazine Chemical & Engineering News.

Founded in 1876 at New York University, the ACS is the world’s largest scientific society by membership, with more than 158,000 members at all degree levels in chemistry, chemical engineering and related fields. The nonprofit is a leading source of scientific information through its peer-reviewed scientific journals, national conferences and the Chemical Abstracts Service.

Rachel Higgins on the Sweet Briar campus. Rachel Higgins on the Sweet Briar campus. Photo by Charlotte Barbour ’16

The ACS holds national meetings twice a year covering the complete field of chemistry, as well as smaller conferences concentrating on specific chemical fields or geographic regions. The organization also publishes textbooks, administers several national chemistry awards, provides grants for scientific research, and supports various educational and outreach activities.

“I really appreciate what the ACS does, so I thought it would be a great opportunity, as well as a great way to get to know people in the industry,” Higgins explains, adding the internship may turn into a full-time position. If it doesn’t, Higgins will tackle her next big goal: getting a graduate degree in chemistry.

After four years at Sweet Briar, Higgins knows what she wants to do with her life — and that life has a way of pointing her in the right direction.

“I came [to Sweet Briar] thinking I was going to be a biology major headed to veterinary school, but I realized in my first semester how much I preferred chemistry over biology,” she recalls. “I was still thinking I was going to vet school, but after a few semesters in chemistry, I knew that I wanted to stay in the lab and do research.”

The conference in San Francisco showed Higgins that graduate study was the right path for her.

“I have been considering graduate school on and off for the past few years, but what really solidified it was being able to talk to professors at a graduate school fair at the ACS meeting,” Higgins says.

It’s that personal touch she was looking for — and found — in her undergraduate experience at Sweet Briar. From day one, Higgins made sure she was involved. She started an archery club, joined Sweet Dancers, the theater tap club Paint ’n‘ Patches and Chung Mungs, and currently serves as president of the chemistry club. She also is an admissions ambassador and class president. But engagement at Sweet Briar means more than just a busy social life. For Higgins, it’s all about the academics.

“What made me choose Sweet Briar was seeing how the small class sizes really impacted learning, and the positive connections between students and professors,” Higgins says.

Sweet Briar lived up to her expectations — and then some.

Rachel Higgins in the chemistry lab at Sweet Briar. Rachel Higgins in the chemistry lab at Sweet Briar. Photo by Pam Simpson

“[Chemistry professors] Rob and Jill Granger both made an incredible impact,” Higgins says. “I was only able to have Jill once as a professor [before she left due to the attempted 2015 closing], but during spring 2015, when I thought everything was falling apart, she helped me refocus and realize that there were a lot of opportunities out there for me, even if Sweet Briar could no longer be there.”

After the College remained open, Higgins decided to stay, too. Rob Granger now serves as her senior research advisor.

“Rob has been my advisor since freshman year, and I can come to him with any questions or concerns,” Higgins says. “He is always willing to help out — especially when I was uncertain about my post-graduation plans. In and out of the classroom, he steers me down the right path. I sometimes call them my ‘school parents’ because I know that they are there for me, even with Jill so far away.”