Jump to main content

UNC Served as ‘a Nice Playground’ for Chemistry Alumna

Associate Professor of Chemistry Geneva Laurita (Ph.D. ’10) teaches a Chemical Reactivity Lab course at Bates College

Associate Professor of Chemistry Geneva Laurita (Ph.D. ’10) teaches a Chemical Reactivity Lab course at Bates College, inspiring the next generation of scientists like her UNC professors encouraged her to think bigger. Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.

Debbie Farris
November 27, 2023

Chemist awarded prestigious $582K National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award

Geneva Laurita, Ph.D. ’10, an associate professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Bates College in Maine since 2017, has received a five-year, $582,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. This is the first time the chemist applied for the award to support her research on pyrochlore oxides, which may have energy and electronic applications.

The NSF CAREER award, considered to be one of the foundation’s most prestigious awards for faculty members who are just beginning their teaching and research careers to propel them to the next level, is based on both Laurita’s scientific research in solid state materials and how she brings undergraduates into this area of scientific exploration.

She describes the compounds as a “poorly understood family of materials” that could provide a useful alternative to other materials in technology-driven applications thanks to their less-toxic, potentially lead-free composition.

“Pyrochlores can be metals, they can be insulators, they can have magnetic properties or non-magnetic properties,” she explains. “They’re so adaptable that they provide a nice playground for chemistry.”

But this playground has serious potential for use within energy and electronic applications. “We want to think about how we can manipulate these materials, using external things such as electric and magnetic fields,” Laurita said.

Her work includes using advanced neutron and synchrotron X-ray scattering techniques to learn more about the structure of these materials. Laurita’s research emphasizes scattering experiments performed at national laboratories, which she was first introduced to at the University of Northern Colorado as an undergraduate.

It took Laurita some time as an undergraduate student at UNC before she found her way to chemistry. She tried out quite a few majors before finding the right one, considering majoring in music or becoming a pharmacist. But during her junior year, she took inorganic chemistry with Professor Robin Macaluso, Ph.D., and found her passion when she was introduced to the concept of superconductors.

“Things really clicked into place,” Laurita remembers. “I was like, ‘This is amazing’.” She took a fifth year and conducted research with Macaluso who sent Laurita to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to do her first neutron-scattering experiment.

“I point to that particular trip as why I am doing everything that I’m doing today. It really sparked my love for neutron science, and this passion that I really do feel for undergraduate exposure to the national labs, because that’s when I got it.”

Laurita recalls the experience that would shape her career. She flew to Washington, D.C. herself, then took a train to Gaithersburg, arriving alone at NIST, where she was met by a scientist with whom Macaluso worked as a post-doc. She was awestruck by the facility, by the giant instrumentation and by the sense of proximity to real, high-stakes science.

“One of my pillars is giving undergraduates exposure to National Laboratories,” she says, referring to the powerhouse network of 17 research laboratories under the U.S. Department of Energy. “This NSF grant supports travel for undergraduate students to these National Labs where we can do some of these really cool experiments.”

In 2019, Laurita, whose parents are both UNC alumni, returned to campus to receive the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department’s Distinguished Alumni Award that year. She describes the department fondly saying “not only was [it] a source of education and professional development opportunities, but this department was a family and a home to me during my time here.”

When it came time came to decide where to go to college, the choice of maintaining the family legacy was an obvious one for Laurita. Raised in a small agricultural community, Greeley felt like the perfect place to expand her horizons while living in a community that felt close to her roots. In classic UNC fashion, her parents met while taking a Spanish class together and married after graduating with degrees in Business and Spanish from the university.

“From the very beginning, I felt like the faculty I interacted with were invested in recognizing my strengths and guiding me towards a path where I could find success,” said Laurita, recalling the close-knit community she built “that could weather the toughest storms.”

“When I enrolled at UNC, I wanted to be a Music and Chemistry double major, but I quickly realized the demands and rigor of both programs and decided to declare a Chemistry major.”

Her major advisor and organic chemistry professor, James Schreck, Ph.D., noticed how much Laurita was comfortable in and enjoyed the laboratory. He advised her to stay the course with her chemistry degree rather than leaving to pursue a pharmacy degree after two years.

“I remember several occasions frantically running into his office in a panic about my future career. He always calmly and patiently listened and provided guidance and advice,” recalls Laurita. “I am grateful that I took his advice. If I would have left after my second year at UNC, I would have missed three years of courses, research and summer experiences that completely ignited my passion in my current field of solid state chemistry.”

After meeting chemist Mas Subramanian, Ph.D. during a summer Undergraduate Research Experience program at Oregon State University, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry there and study under him, working on various oxide materials and employing many of the skills she learned at UNC with Macaluso. She then did postdoctoral work researching materials for solar applications at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Laurita strives to pay it forward to the next generation of chemists and scientists, just as Macaluso and Schreck helped her. The NSF grants have enabled Laurita to introduce students to concepts and research work that are typically available only to graduate students. As a result, undergraduates conducting research in Laurita’s lab have even been able to get published as her co-authors in academic journals.

In tackling today’s big problems, including renewable energy, Laurita explains that “we really need to bring everybody to the table.”

—Debbie Farris

This story includes reporting from Bates College’s Communications and Marketing team.