Solar energy conversion of water into environmentally clean fuels, such as hydrogen, offers one of the best long-term solutions for meeting future global energy needs. For over 50 years, the Photosynthesis Group at Argonne National Laboratory has been exploring nature’s inherent solar energy capture and conversion capabilities found in the photosynthetic machinery of plants, algae, cyanobacteria and photosynthetic bacteria. Photosynthesis is the most important biological process on Earth, using water, carbon dioxide, and energy from the sun to produce oxygen and sugars. New energy conversion strategies utilize our fundamental understanding of photosynthesis at the molecular level to design new materials that use sunlight for the direct synthesis of solar fuels.
Lisa Utschig joined the Photosynthesis Group as a Fermi Postdoctoral Scholar in 1995, and is currently a staff research scientist in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division. She specializes in developing novel bioinorganic approaches to modify photosynthetic proteins to produce energy-rich molecules using light. Her innovative designs couple nature’s reaction center chemistry with manmade chemistry to make environmentally friendly new hybrid systems that enable and resolve fundamental mechanisms for coupling photons to fuel production.
Lisa grew up in a small town in the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin. She attended Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. in 1990. She conducted graduate work at Northwestern University under the guidance of Thomas O’Halloran and obtained a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
Believe it or not, my least favorite subject in grade school and high school was science. I thought science was for boys. My favorite subjects were math and art. In fact, I was voted most likely to be an artist by my 8th grade class. This all changed when I was assigned a college advisor who was a chemistry professor. As a pre-med major, I took chemistry classes and really enjoyed them. I found chemistry to be very mathematical and logical. The summer of my junior year, I did a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at the University of Iowa. This was my first exposure to lab research and graduate school. Unlike science class labs (which I did NOT like), I really enjoyed having my own research project. I liked the independence. I liked the excitement of discovery. I liked the creativity of planning and executing my experiments. With encouragement from my college professors, I decided to apply to graduate schools. It was in graduate school that I truly fell in love with research. I am fortunate to have had great research mentors for both my graduate and post-doctoral research work. They continue to be important sources of encouragement to me. Now I have my own laboratories, create and direct research projects as a principal investigator, and still actively conduct hands-on research. It is great fun to be in a lab!
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I like the history, the people, and the science. I feel humbled by the great research that went on before my time at Argonne. As a post-doc, I was fortunate my time overlapped with some “old-timers” from the Photosynthesis group. I have made it my mission to carry on the tradition of the fundamental photosynthetic reaction center research in our group. Now I am fortunate to work with great scientists. I could not ask for better colleagues. The Department of Energy, Basic Energy Sciences, program managers are terrific, supporting of me as a part-time (my choice, because of my children) principle investigator scientist. The complex biology and chemistry of nature is amazing. I love unraveling the mysteries of nature’s intricate photosynthetic designs using the world-class instrumentation and techniques we have built in the Photosynthesis Group and at Argonne.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I have three children, one in grade school, one in middle school, and one in high school. In our area, we are lucky to have schools that do a great job in getting children excited about science, but I realize that this is most likely not the general case for schools in the United States. One suggestion is for scientists to do public outreach. For example, I do science demonstrations at the grade and middle schools. The kids get so excited. After my first demonstration, girls and boys alike came up to me afterward and declared, “I want to be a scientist when I grow up!” Argonne also has an open house where the public comes on site to learn about our facilities, take part in science demonstrations, and talk with the scientists. My personal goal is to inspire by example. I don’t often talk about being a woman in science; I’m too busy being a woman who does science. I hope to inspire younger women scientists when they see that good science can happen by working part-time while raising three children.
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
The best advice I was given is to follow both your heart and mind. What you do has to make sense, but also must feel right. Keep your mind open to possibilities and opportunities. You will face many challenges in your life. Focus on your inner voice. Set your goals. Trust your instincts.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I enjoy drawing and painting, laughing with my friends, long walks, reading mysteries, cooking, gardening, playing with my dog, and most of all being a mom.