College: Queensborough Community College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013
The Elements of Research
The radioactive element technetium-99 is, proverbially, a blessing and a curse. It exists in two forms. One, 99mTc , is the radionuclide most commonly used to image the body in nuclear medicine scans.
The other, 99Tc, sits in old waste tanks as a byproduct of uranium and plutonium fission from nuclear weapons manufacturing in the 1940s and1950s. Those potentially leaky storage tanks threaten to contaminate water and the food chain. With a radioactive half-life of 212,000 years, 99Tc poses a problem that won’t go away any time soon.
“I want to see whether we can reduce technetium to a pure metal form to store it more safely,” says Jasmine Hatcher (Queens College, B. A. in chemistry, 2009), who in 2013 won a $126,000, three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The NSF grant is the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. She is conducting her research at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Hatcher is uniquely positioned to take a fresh approach to solving this problem. She became interested in chemical research while studying at Queensborough Community College, where she earned an associate degree in 2006.
Associate professor Sharon Lall-Ramnarine became her mentor and arranged for her to work as her summer research assistant at Brookhaven National Laboratory from 2005 to 2007. Later, “she convinced me to go to grad school,” Hatcher says. “Any excuse or doubts, she shot down.”
She moved on to Queens College, where she studied with professor of chemistry and biochemistry Robert Engel. His laboratory has synthesized organic salts and, more recently, converted them into ionic liquids (salts that are liquid, rather than crystalline, at room temperature) and attached them to antimicrobial surfaces.
Even before she graduated, Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist James Wishart, who collaborates with Lall-Ramnarine, brought her in to work as a lab tech.
“He hired me with the intention of sending me off to grad school, but I didn’t know that,” Hatcher says. “He knew I was going to be a scientist. It was working with him that I found what I wanted to do.”
Lall-Ramnarine’s and Wishart’s research involves designing and characterizing new types of ionic liquids, which hold potential for use in fuel cells, as lubricants and as media for radioactive waste.
During three years at Brookhaven after earning her bachelor’s degree, Hatcher became proficient in purifying ionic liquids. She worked mostly with physical and organic chemists but did a side project with a nuclear engineer and says she “saw the need for chemists who are really knowledgeable about nuclear energy and how things work.”
As a result, Wishart recommended that she pursue a doctorate under Hunter professor Lynn Francesconi, whose research focuses on technetium.
“She has an interest in ionic liquids, which I’m proficient at making, and it was all downhill from there,” Hatcher jokes.
As a first-year student, Hatcher is rotating through laboratories to get a broader frame of reference for her doctoral research. In the spring, for example, she again worked with Engel, this time on electrochemistry of ruthenium and platinum compounds.
But this summer, she gets to start work on her own project. “I can’t wait,” she says.