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Lunching With Laureates

Lunching With Laureates Chemistry graduate student Ashleigh Baber discusses the honor of meeting with Nobel laureates at the 2009 Lindau Laureates Meeting this month.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.30.09] Ashleigh Baber (G'10) never thought she would be attending the Lindau Laureates Meeting in Germany. With a pool of almost 20,000 applications every year from which only 500 are selected, the chances of receiving an invitation are slim. Not to mention the minor detail that Baber didn't even know she was an applicant.

"My advisor came to me and told me that I had been chosen as a representative for the funding agency for Tufts," says Baber, a fourth year doctoral student in chemistry. "There had already been an application process that I wasn't even aware of. I was shocked, but really excited."

This year, the meeting specifically focused on the Nobel laureates of chemistry. In addition to lectures and panels on different areas of research within chemistry, Baber also attended informal question-and-answer sessions with some of the laureates, an opportunity that gave her a whole new perspective.

"The way I thought about Nobel laureates before changed completely," Baber says. "You hold them in such high regard, which is definitely deserved, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that they are actual humans, too."

Baber works in Assistant Professor Charles Sykes' lab and her research focuses on "surface science," the study of the physical and chemical phenomena that occur at the interface of two phases, for example solid-liquid or solid-gas interfaces. She studies which surfaces make chemical reactions happen faster, determining how important a certain surface is for catalysis, or the rate at which a reaction takes place.

"If you think about the atmosphere, you have all these different molecules zipping around, and if you have something as simple as a cloud, that surface alone allows molecules to stick to it and interact with each other," Baber explains.

At the meeting she had the opportunity to talk with the 2007 Nobel laureate in chemistry, Dr. Gerhard Ertl, who received the Nobel Prize for his research on surface science.

"Dr. Ertl uses scanning tunneling microscopy also, so it was really interesting to hear about Nobel Prize winning research that uses one of the instruments that I'm using," says Baber. "There was one night where I got to sit with him and talk about his research."

In addition to speaking with Ertl, Baber also had the opportunity to listen as the laureates discussed their research and personal struggles to achieve success.

"There were some people who spoke very specifically about their research and then there were others who spoke about passions outside of science and how you need to be well-rounded," Baber says. "One professor actually talked about a trip he had taken through the Arctic in a canoe, so it was pretty varied."

Overall, Baber says the meeting was inspiring not only because of the laureates, but also because of the hundreds of fellow young researchers who attended.

"Everyone goes through hardships in research. Everyone goes through a point where they're not sure if what they're working on is going to make it," says Baber. "A lot of the laureates kept reminding us that perseverance is a major attribute to any research. I got a little bit of motivation from everybody, even though I don't do their research, and I came back ready to jump in to my research wholeheartedly."

Story by Catherine Scott (A'11)

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