Nusnin Akter: A Role Model for Young Women and Underrepresented Minority Engineers

Stony Brook University doctoral student and Brookhaven Lab guest researcher brings her passion and curiosity for scientific research to the lab and the community

Nusnin Akter enlarge

At Brookhaven Lab's Center for Functional Nanomaterials, (left to right) Nusnin Akter, Anibal Boscoboinik, Dario Stacchiola, and Jianqiang Zhong study a two-dimensional zeolite catalyst model system within an ultra-high vacuum chamber, where they use X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and scanning tunneling microscopy to characterize the model and examine its surface chemistry.

When it comes to catalysis, Nusnin Akter is not only developing chemicals to speed up the reduction of nitric oxide emissions from diesel engines; she is also teaching and volunteering within her community in hopes of catalyzing change within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) diversity. 
“I want other women and underrepresented minorities to get involved in research and for them to realize that they are not alone and can succeed in STEM fields,” said Akter, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in materials science and engineering at Stony Brook University and performing research at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. 

As an immigrant and the first in her family to attend graduate school, Akter knows all too well that the path to success is not easy. After finishing high school in her native Bangladesh, she arrived in the United States, with a new language, culture, and educational system all before her. She enrolled at Hunter College in New York, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. “I have always been fascinated by chemistry because everything around us is made from atoms and molecules,” she said. During her undergraduate studies, she completed nanotechnology research that inspired her decision to pursue graduate work in materials science and engineering at Stony Brook University. 

In fall 2015, while working with her faculty mentor, Professor Taejin Kim of Stony Brook’s Materials Science and Engineering Department, Akter was presented with an opportunity to work part-time at Brookhaven Lab through the Stony Brook University/Brookhaven Lab Seed Grant program, which sponsors joint initiatives between scientists at the two institutions. Her project has been to synthesize and characterize two-dimensional (2D) zeolite (a three-dimensional [3D] porous material) catalyst model systems for diesel engine converters.  

Three days a week, Akter is at Brookhaven, performing research in the Interface Science and Catalysis Group under the advisement of CFN staff scientist Anibal Boscoboinik and group leader Dario Stacchiola. To study the chemical reactions catalyzed by these zeolite catalysts, she uses a simple 2D model system pioneered by Boscoboinik and colleagues that allows her to expose the zeolite catalysts on a molecular surface. “With this system, I can follow the same processes that are happening in 3D inside the pores but with atomic resolution,” said Akter, who characterizes and studies the reactivity of the surfaces by using a combination of spectroscopy techniques at the CFN and the National Synchrotron Light Source II, another DOE Office of Science Facility located at Brookhaven. “Dr. Boscoboinik and Dr. Stacchiola are always willing to help me through any problems I encounter during the project, and their encouragement has been instrumental to my professional development.”  

For her research on nitrogen oxide–reducing catalysts for diesel engine exhausts, Akter won the first-place poster award at the “Girl Power in STEM: Step It Up!” symposium held on Stony Brook campus in March 2016 to honor the achievements of women in STEM fields and celebrate International Women’s Day. The symposium is organized by Brookhaven Women in Science and Stony Brook University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE) groups. 

“As a young woman engineer, I believe that if we don’t involve huge segments of society, especially women, in research, we lose out on potential progress. This award and similar outreach efforts can encourage women, increasing their participation in STEM,” said Akter. This spring, Akter is teaching the “Women in the Laboratory: Introduction to Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Research” course offered to freshmen WISE students. 

Within her local community, Akter serves as a judge for middle- and high-school science competitions. Akter is also involved in the broader research community, belonging to several professional societies, regularly presenting her work on catalysis, and attending events that bring academia and industry together. At the Catalysis Society of Metropolitan New York’s 2016 Spring Symposium, she received the second-place poster award for her research on copper-based catalysts for reducing nitrogen oxides with ammonia. 

“Nusnin’s experience in working with real catalysts and her participation in industry conferences have been extremely valuable in connecting our group’s model-based work to real-world catalytic systems,” said Boscoboinik. “Usually the student is the one learning from the advisor, but in this case, the exchange goes both ways.”  

Starting July 2016, Akter will be a full-time student in the Interface Science and Catalysis Group. 

“I am dedicated to a career in research and to becoming a role model for women and underrepresented minorities,” said Akter. “The opportunities at Brookhaven and Stony Brook will catalyze my progress in achieving these goals.”

2016-6358  |  INT/EXT  |  Newsroom