When Maria Gregor transferred to Penn State from her local community college, she was immediately struck by the wide variety of resources available to chemistry students at University Park. “Penn State has instruments that other schools don’t,” she notes, “I appreciate that we have access to things like the NMR Spec and the GPC.” However, the resources available at Penn State go beyond access to state-of-the-art instruments. Gregor— who is a native of Butler, PA— came to Penn State in search of opportunities not offered at smaller schools, including the chance to do cutting-edge research on campus.
“Find a lab that interests you, and then reach out,” Gregor advises while describing how she got involved with research at Penn State, “be proactive.” After enrolling in classes, one of the first things Gregor did was start looking for research opportunities. After reading about faculty labs and contacting several professors about opportunities in their groups, Gregor found herself working in Dr. Elizabeth Elacqua’s lab. She has been conducting research with Dr. Elacqua and her group for over a year, and is currently working to synthesize conjugated polymers that could function as semi-conductive material.
Because Gregor’s polymers are better at conducting electrons, they’re ideal for use in organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), which are used to create digital displays in devices like television screens, computer monitors, and smartphones. OLEDs emit visible light, meaning that tech manufacturers don’t have to build backlights into their products and can make their devices thinner and lighter. Gregor explains that many industries are moving away from inorganic products in favor of emerging organic materials, such as the polymers she helped to create.
Her work was highlighted in a recently submitted paper.
Completing the synthesis of the polymers was a proud moment for Gregor. “It’s was exciting when we finally got our polymers,” she says, “after working on them for so many months, it was great to see the finished product. Doing research is very rewarding,” she continues, “it’s exciting when your science works.”
However, Gregor is gaining more from her research experience than the completed polymers. “Research helps you develop as a scientist,” she explains, “it helps you become more confident in your science and in yourself. You develop better communication skills and a deeper understanding of the science.”
After graduating, Gregor plans to pursue a career in industry and is considering returning to school for a master’s degree after working for a few years. She’s found a supportive group of faculty, staff, and students within the Department of Chemistry who are helping her work toward that goal.
“Everyone here tries to make sure you know what you need to know for life outside of academia,” she explains, “everyone is very warm within the department. I’ve never run into a person who is unwilling to help when you have a question. Everyone is willing to sit down and talk things through with you.”
Gregor’s research experience in Dr. Elacqua’s lab has given her an opportunity to prepare for her career with hands-on learning, an opportunity she encourages other students to take advantage of. “It’s a great way to start your scientific journey,” Gregor says when asked what advice she would give to undergrads who are interested in doing research, “research isn’t just for chemistry students. We have a chemical engineering major and a psych major in our lab. There are so many opportunities here; don’t be afraid to ask professors about their research or to ask for advice. Don’t be afraid to get to know the people around you.”
In her free time, Gregor enjoys reading fantasy novels, playing the violin, and watching videos.