BOZEMAN — Casey Kennedy has always been interested in science. In fact, when she was in elementary school, science fair season was her favorite time of the year.
But the Montana State University graduate student who once entered a project comparing the bacteria in raw and pasteurized milk never imagined that her fascination with science would lead to a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
Starting in June, Kennedy will receive $34,000 for each of three years to conduct research in a field that she had never heard of before visiting MSU on a recruiting trip.
Erik Grumstrup, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science, talked so enthusiastically that day about investigating potential materials for solar cells that he sparked the same passion in Kennedy. She is now one of four graduate students and three undergraduates trying to untangle the mysteries behind such materials in Grumstrup's lab.
"I didn't intend to be a physical chemist, but here I am," Kennedy said. "It's very interesting. I love the work."
Grumstrup said, "She sort of embodies everything the NSF is looking for. Not only is she an excellent scientist producing great results in the lab, but she is actively engaged in outreach activities."
During her first year at MSU, Kennedy received a one-year fellowship called the Harlan Byker Research Assistantship. She is currently co-president of MSU's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program. She also heads the university's Chemistry and Biochemistry Graduate Student Association.
"It's what we all strive to do, even as faculty," Grumstrup said. "We not only want to do cool research and science, but we want to reach out and make contact, communicate our science externally to the public. It's no surprise that she got the award, and it's certainly very exciting."
Grumstrup, himself, was the first person hired for the Montana University System collaboration called the Materials Science Graduate Program. He came to MSU in 2014. The following year, he received a five-year, $750,000 early career award from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Grumstrup said the graduate students he oversees conduct research that involves disordered semiconductors. Explaining, he said that electrons move through current solar cell materials like cars on an interstate. They move at well-defined speeds with few interruptions. When electrons move through disordered semiconductors, however, they are like cars traveling through neighborhoods. Speeds vary. Stop signs cause frequent interruptions.
He and his students want to understand the nature of those stop signs so they can find new materials that may reduce the cost of solar cells and make them more efficient, Grumstrup said. Part of Kennedy's research supports the overall goal of understanding semiconducting material called perovskites.
"They are very exciting as a solar cell material," Grumstrup said. "While they produce very efficient solar cells, it's not exactly clear how they work from a fundamental standpoint. Our work is to disentangle the fundamental interactions between light and the electricity they produce."
His students can change the chemistry of the materials they are testing, Grumstrup said. By systematically swapping out atoms, they can determine how well the material would perform in solar cells. With pump-probe microscopy, Kennedy uses two different light beams to study perovskites. One beam excites the electrons in the semiconducting material. The other beam probes the material to see how it responds.
"I really like spectroscopy. I think it's amazing how much you can learn from simply observing the way light interacts with matter," Kennedy said. "It's really fun and interesting."
The only person in her family to pursue science, Kennedy, of Billings, said she originally planned to become a medical doctor. But she became intrigued by research and meaningful science during her sophomore year of college while working for University of Montana chemistry professor Mark Cracolice. Her focus on chemistry and physics sharpened when she transferred to MSU Billings and took classes with Rhonda Dillman and Stuart Snyder, both in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences.
Kennedy graduated in 2015 from MSU Billings with a major in chemistry and minor in physics. A variety of factors led her to attend graduate school at MSU, Kennedy said. Not only does she like Bozeman, but she wanted to work in Grumstrup's lab because of her interest in spectroscopy and the interdisciplinary nature of his research.
"I believe that developing the skill of approaching problems from different viewpoints will greatly benefit me as an independent researcher trying to solve real-world problems," Kennedy said.
She isn't sure yet what she will do after earning her Ph.D. in physical chemistry, Kennedy said.
"I'm interested in science policy, but I'm also interested in the science that I do," she said.
She added that Bozeman houses a great community for scientists who specialize in optics and photonics. She would love to work at one of the many optics companies that are part of the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance in Bozeman, Kennedy said. Photonics refers to the science and technology of generating, detecting and controlling light. The field is key to such things as smartphones, cameras, medical instruments and lighting products.
"I love Bozeman," Kennedy said. "It would be great to get to stay here."
Contact: Casey Kennedy, firstname.lastname@example.org; or Erik Grumstrup, (406) 994-2988 or email@example.com