Fresh water and clean air are the most basic human needs. But according to Justyna Widera-Kalinowska, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry at Adelphi, both are becoming scarcer around the world, even in highly developed countries.

An International Research Project Explores Nanotechnology’s Potential for Providing a Greener Future

Fresh water and clean air are the most basic human needs. But according to Justyna Widera-Kalinowska, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry at Adelphi, both are becoming scarcer around the world, even in highly developed countries. “Nanotechnology research offers a green solution to these problems that are so important to us all as human beings,” said Dr. Widera-Kalinowska. “This is a great motivation for me.”

This summer, for the third year in a row, five Adelphi students spent eight weeks at the University of Warsaw in Poland with Dr. Widera-Kalinowska, where they researched new energy-efficient and cost effective semiconductor materials for use in renewable energy sources and waste recycling and water purification systems.

Semiconductors in solar cells that are made from silicon are notoriously expensive to produce. Dr.Widera-Kalinowska hopes to change this. “I’m using materials that are inexpensive and easy to synthesize that become photoactive when exposed to solar light,” she explained. “We are trying to come up with the optimal combination of these simple components to make the best nanohybrid with the highest light conversion efficiency.”

Dr. Widera-Kalinowska is the recipient of a grant of nearly $250,000 from the National Science Foundation(NSF) U.S.–Poland International Research Experiences for Students (IRES). Her three-year award, spanning 2016 to 2019, supports a collaborative project between Adelphi and the University of Warsaw that gives Adelphi undergraduates a unique opportunity to gain invaluable research experience in materials science and nanotechnology. Several students who took part in the IRES project have gone on to pursue graduate degrees in the field.

“The students participating in the NSF IRES grant study with top, world-renowned European scientists,as well as graduate and postdoc students who are experts in the nanotechnology field,” said Dr. Widera-Kalinowska. The undergraduates can also get experience with state-of-the-art scientific tools and instruments, such as scanning electron microscopes, that are not available at Adelphi.

Researchers and students working on the project are focused on synthesizing new composite materials for alternative energy sources and environmental remediation applications. So far, the IRES team has gained a better understanding of the basic working principles of semiconducting nanohybrids, which will lead ultimately to less expensive and more effective photocatalytic and photovoltaic devices. “We are also working on creating sensors to detect harmful substances in water even if they are only present in very small amounts,” said Dr. Widera-Kalinowska. “The end result will be a more efficient harvesting of solar light for creating alternative energy sources and novel photocatalysts for use in hazardous waste treatment and water purification.”

Dr. Widera-Kalinowska’s team includes students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds who work in her lab during the academic year before going to Poland. This year, all her students are women.The project grant will pay for all expenses, including airfare and room and board, as well as a weekly summer stipend for four of the women. The fifth student will be funded by the Landesberg Family Scholarship grant. Once they return to Adelphi, the students will receive credit for the research course credits earned at the University of Warsaw.

But visiting Poland is not only about research work; the IRES grant also provides students with an enriching cultural experience by covering the cost of day and weekend trips. The itinerary includes visits to Warsaw’s Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum and the Nicolaus Copernicus House Museum in Toruń, plus excursions to European cities such as Berlin, Prague and Rome.

“My favorite part of this experience was exploring another culture while doing something I am passionate about,” recalled biochemistry major Veronica Grebe ’17. “It has been incredible to experience all that Poland has to offer.”

Ezer Castillo ’17, a biochemistry major, said, “Seeing and experiencing how scientific advances are being made outside of the United States has really given me an insight into how big the world of research is.”

While Dr. Widera-Kalinowska is committed to leading her students in the discovery of new solutions to critical environmental problems, she is also excited to be able to train a new generation of STEM workers.“I want my passion for research to be contagious to students to the point that they would consider it as a career path for their lives,” she said.

Justyna Widera-Kalinowska, Ph.D., is recognized internationally for her work on solar energy and photocatalysis, which includes research in the fields of nanotechnology, conducting polymers, sol-gels, quantum dots and sensors. An associate professor of chemistry, she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Warsaw, Poland, and joined Adelphi’s faculty in 2005.

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