Feature: Julia Leonard

My name is Julia Leonard and I received my B.S. in Chemistry from Saint Joseph’s University in 2016. I am currently a 2nd year Masters student at Villanova University, where I do synthetic organometallic research. My project focuses on designing substituted trispyridylphosphine ligands, and using transition metal complexes to understand the effect of substitution on the electronics of the ligand. Part of my project has included learning how to do x-ray crystallography. Its extremely exciting to solve the structure of a compound that you made. I have been a teaching assistant for 5 years, and I have loved every second of it. I am planning on pursuing a PhD after I receive my masters, and I am very excited to see what the future holds!
— Julia Leonard

I'm really excited to share the first scientist feature here on Seabreezelife! We're kicking it all off with the lovely Julia Leonard (@inorganic_jules), who is a Master's student conducting synthetic organometallic research at Villanova University. I had the great pleasure of getting to Skype with Julia and learn about her science and experiences during grad school.

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Q: What sparked your interest in research and drove your decision to pursue a Master's degree and apply for PhD programs?

A: One of my favorite things about research and science is that there's always something new to find out. It's not boring. As a kid, I really enjoyed puzzles, and to me chemistry is like one big puzzle. There's always something to learn and the process is not something that's static.

Q: What topics are you studying and what types of techniques do you use commonly?

A: In the lab I joined during my Master's I switched completely from one field of study to another. I knew nothing about the techniques I would need to work in this new setting. I use a technique called the Schlenk technique pretty often which involves a lot of work using a glovebox to handle chemicals that are very reactive to oxygen. I had to pick up techniques pretty quickly in lab but switching to a new lab during my Master's was the best decision.

Q: Can you explain how the glove box works?

A: The glove box is an enclosed apparatus that's filled with argon and held under atmospheric pressure. There are two ports with heavy duty rubber gloves so you can reach in and work in a controlled environment. Some of the compounds we work with either catch fire when they're exposed to oxygen or they are completely destroyed by oxygen. In the glove box we have some metals like Li+ metal and Na+ metal that are basically harmless in the glovebox because there's no oxygen to cause any violent reactions

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Q: What's your favorite thing that you're currently working on right now in lab?

A: The metal chemistry is really fun and very gratifying. I take a metal that's dissolved in a solvent and a ligand that's in its own solvent and combine the two. When they react they cause a color change. Lately I get color changes from yellow to orange or purple, and it's gratifying to see immediately that the experiment worked. The color change comes from the d-orbital electrons of the metal. Transition metals tend to make colored compounds when the ligand gets complexed to the metal. So what you're seeing is the electronic exchange of the bond causing the color change. Also, another cool thing I'm working on in lab is the X-ray Crystallography and I managed to get three new structures last week.

Q: Is there anything in particular you want to study in the future or during your PhD?

A: I'm particularly interested in the design of new metal complexes that would have different applications in several different fields of chemistry. A lot of metal complexes are used as catalysts for organic chemistry and I think it's interesting to work on the design of these new catalysts. There are catalysts used in chemistry that can be particularly difficult to handle and are unstable. If it's possible to get the same results using a different catalyst that's easier to work with that could be used instead of some of the compounds that are harder to work with.

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Q: Is there any experience during your research that has been defining?

A: One thing I've learned from science is the importance of being flexible and be careful when making plans because a lot of the time science will turn around and squash those plans. Recently I managed to synthesize three new compounds that I hadn't been able to make since July so I spent months troubleshooting why it wasn't working. It's really important not to let yourself get frustrated to the point of giving up but instead turn that frustration to motivation to find what the problem is

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Q: In this phase where you're nearing the end of your Master's and waiting to hear back from applications to PhD programs, what advice would you have for someone else who's in the same position.

A: The greatest thing for me has been a really good support system. It's important to find a good support system and talk to other people. Also, when things are really difficult, remember the things that are fun in what you do

Q: In moments where experiments fail and things are working, what do you think is the best approach to take?

A: I mentioned before that for the long term it's good to let your frustration serve as motivation for getting things to  work. But in the short term it can be really helpful to just take a step back for the day, Just walk away from what you're working on, go home, decompress, have a glass of wine, and let it go. There's always tomorrow. Stepping back let's the frustration die down and you can refocus for the next day.

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I want to say a huge thank you to Julia for stepping up to share her experience in science and grad school! It was such a great opportunity to get to meet you and learn so many new things about doing research in chemistry. Best of luck!

Bree Watkins