Monday, May 2, 2022

Samantha Kruse’s research interests are incredibly specific, yet they promise large-scale impacts. A second-year graduate student in the University of Iowa’s chemistry department, Kruse is researching how radiation impacts organic materials, or as she described it, “incorporat[ing] my two loves in the area of chemistry: organic solid-state chemistry and radio chemistry.”

Samantha Kruse
Samantha Kruse, PhD candidate in chemistry

Kruse's research could offer insights into everything from space satellites to cancer treatments to nuclear waste containment. In the case of nuclear waste, “If we can make materials that don’t break down over time or that can at least be longer lasting than what we have now,” she said, referencing the environmental hazard of corroding nuclear waste barrels, “and if we can develop materials that can actually contain the waste properly, then we don’t have to worry necessarily about how much of an environmental impact that waste will have.” For cancer treatments, her research could investigate the possibilities of introducing radioactive organic complexes to attack cancer cells. The possibilities are truly endless.

Thinking back on her first two years of graduate school, Kruse observed, “You get into grad school and you think you’re prepared for everything. You’re not, which is absolutely fine. But people, especially here in our Chemistry department, are very willing to step out and help each other. No one wants to see anyone fail. Everyone’s extremely supportive of each other. Just allow yourself to fall down and get back up.” For Kruse, that support has taken the form of everything from involvement in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives to fellowship application support.

A recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows Program (NSF GRFP), a five-year fellowship with three years of financial support, Kruse will have ample time to explore the many facets of her research. Without the workload and time commitment of an assistantship, Kruse will also have the flexibility to pursue her teaching-related career goals. She starts coursework for the graduate certificate in teaching in the fall and is eager to develop her skills in this area, as she eventually hopes to become a professor. “It’s a lot to take on so [the award] will make my load a little lighter than what it would be,” she observed.

Kruse first heard of the NSF GRFP during her Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), an intensive research experience for undergraduate students, but she ultimately took extra time to develop a strong proposal during her first year of graduate school. Working with her advisors, Drs. Tori Forbes and Leonard MacGillivray, as well as Chemistry Research Support Specialist Amy Charles, Kruse spent a full year developing cohesive and convincing proposal, which she said required “finding a balance of your broader impacts—how you’re going to reach out to the community—as well as having a well-funded research project.”

Samantha Kruse
Samantha Kruse holds a vial of organic crystalline materials (photo by Cale Stelken).

The payoff was well worth the effort. Kruse said the fellowship will allow her to focus on her research and her ultimate career goals. “You only have five years to do graduate school, and everyone has a lot of ideas, but [the NSF GRFP] really secures that time and funding to get things done,” she explained. “This award allows you to pursue those ideas that you may have had on paper and get them started.”

In Kruse's case, those ideas often require what Dr. Forbes described as “convergence and bringing ideas from different areas together to tackle interesting problems.” From Dr. Forbes’s perspective, Kruse “is engaging in activities to improve inclusivity in science by creating avenues to explore scientific ideas and create a more welcoming community. These attributes really make her a future leader in the field and truly deserving of the NSF GRFP award.”

Although the fellowship application process is intimidating, to say the least, Kruse insisted that potential applicants shouldn’t let that hold them back. “Reach out to people. We have people especially at the university to help you. I say go for it. There’s not one aspect that should ever hold you back from applying for any scholarship or fellowship, because you never know until you try.”