Chemist Jamie Neilson named Sloan Research Fellow and Cottrell Scholar

Jamie Neilson

Jamie Neilson, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, has been named both a Sloan Research Fellow and  Cottrell Scholar. Credit: Abby Grubesic

Colorado State University Assistant Professor Jamie Neilson is using chemistry to create new, innovative materials to change the way we harvest and use energy. He is also leading the charge to integrate this work into a new sustainability-focused educational program on campus.

For his myriad achievements on both of these fronts, Neilson has been named a Sloan Research Fellow, a prestigious award for early-career scientists and scholars working on fundamental research, as well as a Cottrell Scholar, a distinction that recognizes excellent teacher-scholars for their innovation and academic leadership. Both were announced this week.

Materials by design

In his lab in the Department of Chemistry, Neilson and his colleagues are using molecular-level control to discover new functional materials, such as ones that could improve solar energy efficiency. “These fundamental studies will ultimately change the way we approach the synthesis, use, and lifecycle of materials used to store and convert different forms of energy,” Neilson said.

But changing paradigms is not easy. “Materials by design” presents “one of the grandest challenges that the physical sciences faces,” Neilson said. This is in part because the materials themselves can be a sticking point in research progress: “materials both enable and limit our ability to create technology,” he explained.

Neilson, however, has a high-energy team to help push the effort forward, including “the undergraduates that are excited to dig into research, the graduate students who truly are the amazing innovators, and my fantastic colleagues that freely share their ideas, wisdom and coffee.”

The two-year, $60,000 fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation will help support all aspects of Neilson’s research. He joins 15 other Colorado State University researchers in having received the honor in the past 45 years, all in the College of Natural Sciences. Most recently, Amber Krummel, also an assistant professor in the chemistry department, was named a Sloan Research Fellow in 2015. Neilson is one of 126 researchers in this year’s class of fellows, which was announced February 21.

Impact in the classroom

Beyond his boundary-pushing work in the lab, Neilson is also dedicated to translating his research into educational opportunities, which is one of the core requirements of a Cottrell Scholar.

In particular, Neilson is developing a program at CSU that will help shape the next generation of scientists tackling sustainability challenges. He is partnering with the College of Natural Sciences Learning Community to create a new first-year seminar for students in the community who elect to participate in a year-long program focusing on issues of sustainability. “The seminar will culminate with a solar-energy competition, using solar cells that the students have built and tested during the semester,” he said. But the vision for the program goes beyond better solar technology. “One of our main goals,” Neilson said, “is to highlight the critical role that the natural sciences play in sustainability.”

The Cottrell award also bolsters the recipients’ research in the physical sciences. For this component, Neilson will be building on his work that won him a Department of Energy Early Career Research award in 2016, investigating the material design principles of a new direction for semiconductors in photovoltaics. “We will pursue new materials and new strategies for effective light absorption and charge separation,” he said.

The three-year, $100,000 Cottrell award, from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, was given to about two dozen outstanding early career “teacher-scholars” in the fields of chemistry, physics, and astronomy across the country this year. Neilson is the second CSU faculty member to receive the honor. Professor Grzegorz Szamel, also of the chemistry department, was named a Cottrell Scholar in 1997.