RHS grad named to prestigious list of student researchers
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
It could be said that Rhinelander’s Bailey Nebgen was born to be a scientist. Or, perhaps that she has chosen to go into the family business. But neither of those would do justice to her most recent accomplishment as a college student. Nebgen, a 2016 Rhinelander High School grad has been selected by the American Chemical Society (ACS) as one of the top 25 undergraduate physical chemistry researchers in the country for her work at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
“I’ve been interested in chemistry from a pretty young age, starting with science fair projects way back in elementary school,” Nebgen said. “Classes and summer camps have definitely solidified my interest, too, though I have to say that what I am interested in now is a lot different than the chemistry I pictured myself doing when I was younger.”
Her brother, Ben is a researcher at Los Alamos National Lab, the place where much of the famed Manhattan Project research took place. Both parents taught at the college level; her father in chemistry and mother in programming. Bailey, instead of wearing a lab coat and working with colorful bubbling solutions as she may have imagined herself, instead wears dark goggles and works with high-precision lasers and home-built electrical devices. Her lab group partners are “multidisciplinary,” and in addition to chemistry, use physics, electrical engineering, programming and biology. It’s an approach that Nebgen said keeps her interested in the research.
“I love how we can look at a problem from many different perspectives,” Nebgen said. “I specifically love chemistry because I have always enjoyed thinking about how things work on a really small scale. It’s incredible to imagine all of the chemistry that is happening inside you, even when sitting and doing nothing…countless atoms bouncing around and exchanging energy in just the right way so that you can sit there and watch Netflix. I’m definitely addicted to learning about things that are totally mind-blowing.”
Nebgen’s love of the environment and desire to help stop climate change, led in part to her research project. The goal of which – to oversimplify it – is to improve the efficiency of solar panels.
“I’m specifically working on organic, instead of silicon, solar cells,” she explained. “These are special because they can be flexible, cheap and easy to build relative to your typical rooftop or free-standing array. These are potentially wearable or’ stickable’ just about anywhere…and also happen to have the potential to be more efficient than silicon cells due to some fun quantum-mechanical weirdness that allows some materials to generate two electrons for every one photon, whereas silicon sheets only produce one, by a process called ‘singlet fission.’ This means potentially twice the generated electrical current.”
And that, Nebgen said, is what her project focuses on – figuring out how molecules do that so researchers can predict and design better materials to maximize efficiency and cost effectiveness. “It’s important because more efficient, cheaper solar power incentivizes its use over energy sources that pollute and contribute to climate change,” Nebgen added.
Nebgen said her dream career would be as a chemistry professor at a university, which would require graduate school and a PhD., after receiving her bachelor’s degree.
“I love how professors at research universities get to both teach and run a research lab; it’s the best of both worlds,” she said. “The idea of the intellectual freedom of achieving tenure is also very appealing to me. That kind of security is a great perk after a lot of years of school and research.”
She will travel to the annual ACS meeting in Orlando, Fla., in March to receive her award, and if her project is selected, present it to attendees there. In addition to school and research, Bailey works at the UMN Disability Resource Center, is an undergraduate student member of the Chemistry Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, plays tenor sax and piano in the concert band, and has received a variety of scholarships and honors.