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UBC PhD candidate named among winners of 2019 Schmidt Science Fellowship

There has been increasing recognition in academia of the need to decompartmentalize different disciplines and a UBC graduate student is one of the newest recipients of an award that aims to do just that.

On April 8, Rebecca Sherbo, who is pursuing her PhD in chemistry at UBC, was named as one of the twenty winners of the 2019 Schmidt Science Fellowship.

The Schmidt Fellowship is designed to encourage the growth of research that harnesses the knowledge of researchers in diverse disciplines by helping establish fellows in a year-long postdoctoral research placement that emphasizes interdisciplinary study. Fellows also participate in four global meetings with their cohort during their placement that aim to help them grow their network and gain exposure to new ideas.

Sherbo has focused her work at UBC on leveraging chemistry to develop clean energy technologies, an area of research that has had a draw for her since her undergraduate studies. “At the end of my undergrad I realized how applicable chemistry could be to different areas and I’ve always been really interested in energy and finding ways to ease our dependence on fossil fuels,” she said.

Currently she is working with the Berlinguette Group within the chemistry department, whose research centres on the potential of chemistry as a tool for developing clean energy.

As part of her thesis, Sherbo investigated using electricity to run chemical reactions. Many such reactions commonly require high temperature and pressure to proceed, conditions that demand lots of energy, so developing methods to run these reactions using renewable electricity would make the process much more sustainable.

“I just think it’s such an important area, it’s really pressing, and so it was exciting for me to be able to do something that I felt could make an impact in that area,” she said.

After Sherbo successfully made it through UBC’s internal application process for the Schmidt fellowship, she submitted a research proposal detailing her postdoctoral plans if she was named as a fellow. Her proposal expanded on the same research area she has pursued at UBC. “My research proposal was about pivoting to work more in microbiology and finding ways to use microbes to convert electricity into fuel to store renewable electricity, and I wanted to do that by converting CO2 into fuel, so both storing renewable energy and converting waste CO2 gas,” she said.

Once she was offered an interview in New York in early April, events unfolded quickly for Sherbo, as the fellowship class of 2019 was announced the next day. “It was pretty surreal,” she said.

She is currently in the process of deciding on a lab to work in after she completes her PhD studies at UBC, but has said she will likely end up at Harvard or MIT. While she does not know exactly what her path after UBC will look like, Sherbo is looking forward to the learning opportunities that the fellowship will offer.

“I’m really excited about learning something new and coming up with new, exciting ideas in the lab … the other thing that I’m excited to learn about is just from the selectors for this award and from all the different fellows who were selected. I feel like it will really open my mind a bit more about different areas of science and different career paths.”