Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences


Scratching the surface

Scratching the surface

Rachael Farber, fifth-year doctoral student in the physical chemistry program, discusses surface science with her lab partner in Flanner Hall.

By: Kaitlin McMurry

Inside a laboratory in Flanner Hall, Rachael Farber spends hours poring over images of metal surfaces that show individual atoms. Farber lives for experiments like these, testing how different metals respond to chemicals such as oxygen or hydrogen. Exhibiting all the characteristics of a pioneering scientist, Farber can sometimes spend nearly 50 hours in the lab in pursuit of her goal: finding ways that metal surfaces can improve how we live and work.

Farber, a doctoral student in Loyola’s physical chemistry program, has studied surface chemistry for five years at Loyola and was recently honored by several publications and organizations for her research. This fall, she received two major awards at the 64th International Symposium of the American Vacuum Society (AVS)—an interdisciplinary society for professionals in the science and technology industries—where she took home the Morton M. Traum Student Award for her research on Surface Science and the Nellie Yeoh Whetten Award, a top award given at the symposium. Farber, who also studied chemistry at Case Western Reserve University as an undergraduate, attributes this recognition to the supportive, student-focused environment within Loyola’s chemistry department.

Here, Farber talks about her research, some of the challenges she and other women in science have faced, and she reminisces about her time at Loyola as she embarks on her last semester at Loyola.

You do research on heterogeneous catalysis, or how different materials react to each other. Can you explain how your research impacts people's everyday lives?

We’re trying to understand what oxygen is doing to certain metals. How is it affecting their reactivity? And, is what we're seeing something that can be applied later down the road?

Here’s an example of why people need to care about heterogeneous catalysis. Back in the day, smog control was a huge issue, particularly in places like LA, New York City, or Mexico City--anywhere where there's a bit of a restricted airflow or where high population density cars have toxic exhaust fumes that gets trapped in our atmosphere. There was a huge push to figure out a way to properly neutralize those gases so they're not as harmful to people and the environment.

The way scientists figured out how to do that was by combining three different metals to make catalytic converters. Because of a reaction that happens on the metal surface, these different species can react on that metal surface and be neutralized into CO2 and less toxic gases. Once they started using these catalytic converters, the smog levels dropped, people were able to have healthy lungs again, and they could see skylines on clear days.

 You recently received two major awards at the 64th AVS International Symposium.  Tell us about that experience.

It was really it was pretty amazing to get both of those awards. I think we do really nice work in here and I think our research is pretty important. It's really awesome to have it recognized, especially with AVS since that is so applicable to our field.

Loyola was recently ranked 7th in the country for graduating women in STEM. Would you say this reflects your experience at Loyola?

That’s fantastic! I know that when I've been a teacher assistant in undergrad classes, I've never really noticed any sort of male dominance in those classes; it's been fairly split with both male and female representation. I always felt like there was a really good representation of women here at Loyola. When I look at other schools in Chicago, there's maybe one woman in a lab group of five or six people. When you go to conferences a lot of the times there’s like 10 percent women in attendance. In general, there aren't a lot of women in this field.

One of the things I've noticed being at Loyola is that I've been given a lot of opportunities to go to conferences and talk about what we do here. The department has been really supportive of presenting opportunities for women, so there's a lot of networking involved. If you want to be successful in science, you need a really big support system and I think Loyola is doing a really good job of helping women find partners and mentors in the field. I know that I've been really lucky with my advisor, Dan Killelea. He’s been really supportive from day one—making sure it was understood that I needed to do work in a lab.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in science or concerns women may have navigating the field?  

You want to be judged on your data, not on how you look. I've had a few instances going to conferences where either a female professor has commented on the makeup I’m wearing, or male professors will sort of make comments about how you look like “oh like you look so wonderful and you gave a great presentation but you looked wonderful up there.” There’s still a big issue about being appreciated as a good scientist and being able to represent yourself however you see fit whether you're a more feminine woman or if you prefer to be a bit more laid-back in how you appear. I've also heard a lot of women talk about how to balance having a family when you’re in science. How do you be a mother and work toward getting a tenure-track position?  

And finally, as you look to your post-doctorate opportunity, can you share your favorite Loyola memory and what you will miss the most?   

I think in general one of my favorite memories is just the community here. I’m really going to miss the environment of the department especially, because all the professors are so supportive and the graduate students have a nice community. I know that I've been very fortunate: I have had a lot of really wonderful opportunities at Loyola, like going to various conferences since my first year, and I’ve been able to give talks at international and local chapter meetings of different organizations. Everyone wants you to do the best you can.