Women in Energy: Patricia Ignacio-de Leon
Patricia Ignacio-de Leon was born and raised in Manila, capital of the Philippines. She highly enjoyed her four-year teaching experience at the University of the Philippines, where she also obtained her B.S. in chemistry. As an undergraduate, she completed a thesis on discovering anti-inflammatory compounds from white leadtree seeds by testing on mice. She received her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Utah, where she focused on developing membranes using silica-based nanomaterials such that the molecular transport is controlled at the nanoscale via modification of pore size and surface functionality. She then decided to broaden and increase her repertoire of multidisciplinary skills by working as a postdoctoral fellow in a chemical engineering group at Northwestern University, where she developed new heterogeneous catalysts for alkene oxidation using transition metal complexes tethered onto organic-modified silica supports. Ignacio-de Leon is currently a postdoctoral appointee in the Energy Systems Division at Argonne, where she is combining her expertise in separations and catalysis to design and develop novel metal/metal oxide nanocomposite membranes for applications in wastewater treatment and catalytic separations.
What do you do?
For my work at Argonne National Laboratory, I am designing and developing novel nanocomposite membranes, comprised of magnetic nanotubes embedded in a polymer support to form a permselective layer on microporous supports, for applications in wastewater treatment and catalytic separations. This wonderful opportunity has allowed me to pursue my passion from when I was a graduate student, when my research was focused on developing membranes using nanomaterials such that the molecular transport is controlled at the nanoscale via modification of pore size and surface functionality. To achieve this, I prepared and tested various membranes for use in separations applications such that a target component in a mixture can be separated on the basis of size, charge and molecular recognition. My Ph.D. work on free-standing silica-based membranes has contributed to the development of nanomaterials not only for the isolation and purification of biomolecules and other molecules of industrial and commercial interest, but also for highly specialized and diverse applications such as systems for delivery and controlled release of drugs, sensing of chemicals and biomarkers and platforms for bionanoreactors and catalysis. I pursued the use of silica-based nanomaterials for catalysis in a postdoctoral project where I developed new heterogeneous catalysts for alkene oxidation using transition metal complexes tethered onto organic-modified silica supports, leading to improved cost and energy efficiency as a result of higher selectivity for the desired product, as well as ease of separation of products from starting materials.
What is the best part of your job?
I find it both fun and challenging to work in a team with diverse backgrounds. The biologist may not always understand what the chemist is saying (who in turn may get lost in the language of the physicist) but at the end of the day, it is very rewarding when the job gets done because we all contributed. No man (and no scientist) is an island, indeed! I also appreciate how every day at work is another opportunity to learn new ideas and acquire new skills from my colleagues, and conversely, share my knowledge and experience with others.
What inspires you?
I am amazed and humbled by the works of great scientists, thinkers and doers who have come before us. I recognize that the results of their perseverance allow us to pursue and enjoy the science and technology that we currently have. This reminds me of one of my favorite general chemistry lessons — the Aufbau Principle. “Aufbau” is a German word that means “construction” and, just like my predecessors, I want to be a part of this “building up” of discoveries and scientific advances so that both my generation and the next will be better equipped to tackle worldwide problems in energy, environment, and health.
When did you first consider pursuing a STEM degree?
I was fortunate to have encouraging women mentors as early as my high school days. My biology, chemistry and physics teachers were all women of various ages, and that allowed me to learn from them about the importance of pursuing my interest in science while balancing the other equally important aspects of life such as personal growth, family and giving back to the community.
How does your job make a difference?
I am currently leading a laboratory-directed R&D project with the goal of developing novel hybrid membranes with applications toward water purification and catalytic transformation of feedstocks into fine chemicals and biofuels. In terms of nationwide benefit, membranes for water filtration can help address immediate water scarcity concerns (such as the drought currently occurring in California that prompted Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in January 2015), as well as allow industries to reuse wastewater and/or maintain environmental sustainability by meeting regulatory compliance on wastewater quality requirements. Because safe water is a basic need, such nanocomposite membranes for water purification will not only benefit the United States, but also help other nations worldwide.
Membranes with catalytic functions address energy-related challenges such as production of biofuels and can help ensure the economic independence of the United States from other oil-exporting countries. (In 2013 alone, the United States imported a total of approximately 3.6 billion barrels of oil according to an independent analysis by the U.S Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration.) Our group’s multifunctional materials, which can carry out two or more processes simultaneously in a single or in a modular assembly, have the potential to address the need for more efficient and highly selective product synthesis and separation, thereby directly impacting the carbon footprint of chemical synthesis in such a way to reduce the need for waste recovery and treatment. Chemical synthesis with integrated separation will improve process efficiency and intensity while minimizing operational costs. Transformational multifunctional membranes capable of simultaneous catalysis and product separation have the potential to create a new class of energy membrane reactors that could create a radical transformation of U.S. manufacturing from centralized facilities to on-site, on-demand manufacturing, thus reducing the need to transport feedstocks, intermediate and fine chemical products. Not only does this increase energy efficiency and sustainability, but it also decreases environmental impact and makes public roads safer by minimizing the possibility of accidental and unintentional spillage.
What would you share with a student who wishes to pursue a career in your field?
I highly encourage students to push through with their desires to become scientists and/or engineers, especially if they find the subjects fascinating. Genuine interest goes a long way towards motivating a person, especially when the going gets tough. Some days will be rougher than most, but that is what the prefix “re-” means in research (is what I always jokingly say). To paraphrase the great American president Theodore Roosevelt’s (he studied biology in Harvard, by the way!) inspiring words, “nothing worth doing is ever easy,” so do not give up until you have exhausted your options.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I enjoy playing basketball, hiking, video gaming and teaching my dog, Naga, new tricks.