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Spotlight on Katie Leight - NSF Fellow

Submitted on September 11, 2014
Photo of Katie Leight

Hello everyone! My name is Katie Leight and I am a fourth year student in the Chemistry PhD program at the University of Arizona. I do analytical and organic research in the McGrath and Saavedra labs. I received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) in 2013, and I am a graduate editor.

The broad goal of my research is to understand and improve the efficiency of low cost organic solar cells (also called organic photovoltaic, or OPV). To do this, we break down the OPV into its different layers and study the interface between two of the layers. The two layers that I am interested in are the electron donor material (we use zinc phthalocyanine, or ZnPc) and the transparent conductive oxide (we use indium tin oxide, or ITO). Specifically, I am interested in how distance and orientation of the first monolayer of ZnPc on ITO affects the charge transfer between the two materials. To study this, I design and make different functionalized ZnPc’s with specific properties and deposit a monolayer onto an ITO surface. Then, I analyze these substrates with different electrochemical and spectroscopic techniques to collect the charge transfer rates between the two materials. This knowledge will in turn help design a more efficient, low cost OPV.


One of the challenges I have seen during the application process is that you might not have joined your research group yet. This is common for undergraduate seniors and first year graduate students. In the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, graduate students don’t join their research groups until the second semester of their first year. This becomes a challenge for numerous reasons; your future PI doesn’t know you that well, and you don’t know the scope of research that you can do in that lab. You can still apply for the fellowship if you haven’t officially joined the group yet! It is necessary to have several conversations now with the PI of the lab you want to join. Let them know ASAP that you are applying. Explain to them your previous research and the outreach that you have done so that in their letter of recommendation, they can talk highly of your intellectual merit and your broader impacts. They can also help you out with solidifying your research proposal to make sure that it is something that you could do in their group. If you are applying as an undergraduate and the PI is at another institution, Skype with them. Face-to-face conversation is much more personal than back and forth emails.  Your future PI will write a much better letter of recommendation if they have a more personal connection with you. 


I realize that grad school gets busy but make time to apply for this fellowship. I probably spent 150 hours total on my proposal, one that I would have to write anyway for my PhD candidacy exam the following semester.  That was the most well paid 150 hours I have ever spent. So stick with it. If I can help you with anything, feel free to email me!