Professor Karah Knope (center), pictured with members of her laboratory, has been awarded a 2018 DOE Early Career Award. (Photo courtesy Karah Knope)
Knope was one of 84 scientists working in universities and national laboratories to receive the honor, which is limited to tenure-track researchers who have received their Ph.D.s within the last 10 years.
RETURN TO TEACHING
Knope began her career as a chemist at Lake Forest College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and continued at the George Washington University, where she earned her Ph.D. After finishing at GW, Knope spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow and two more as a junior chemist at Argonne National Laboratory.
Argonne allowed Knope the opportunity to conduct meaningful chemical research, however, she missed the teaching role of a university professor. Georgetown’s facilities and emphasis on the classroom allowed her to do both.
“What brought me to Georgetown was the ability to do cutting-edge research but also mentor students,” Knope said. “Here, I get the best of both worlds.”
HEAVY ELEMENTS AND NUCLEAR ENERGY
A heavy elements specialist, Knope studies the actinides, a group of radioactive elements whose properties are essential to nuclear energy. These elements — thorium, uranium, neptunium, and plutonium among them — can form different complexes in different environments. Knope’s lab attempts to mimic the complexes that form under conditions found in nuclear waste management, separations, and environmental systems.
“At a fundamental level, we’re trying to understand the types of complexes that form and how they transform under a given set of conditions, and from that knowledge you can better predict how the metal will behave environmentally,” Knope said. “But in order to do that, you need to understand the nature of the complexes.”
Knope focuses on an oft-overlooked variation of the heavy metals known as the tetravalent oxidation state.
“What’s unique is that we’re looking at the tetravalent oxidation state, which is an overlooked oxidation state,” Knope said. “I’ve partnered with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, so we can also study plutonium and neptunium chemistry, which tends to be underrepresented.”
Knope tailored her lab’s work to fit the Department of Energy’s research needs, making her an ideal fit for the Early Career Award. The monetary portion of the award will help fund graduate students to work in her lab, as well as giving students the opportunity to study more highly radioactive elements at national laboratories.
“These students will be able to focus on their research projects, which is good for their development as scientists,” Knope said. “It will also send them to national labs and work with elements that few facilities are equipped to handle.”
The study of radioactive heavy elements is an expensive and difficult branch of chemistry. For Knope, this award and grant help ensure that her research can continue in the long term.
“Now I have the support to make this research a sustainable thing,” Knope said.
— Patrick Curran