Leading science and people for BioLEC
Ben Xinzi Zhang

Hannah Sayre, center lead postdoc of BioLEC.

Hannah Sayre leads a Wednesday subgroup meeting where graduate students and postdocs discuss progress in the photochemistry research of the Scholes group as part of the EFRC.

Every week, all members of Gregory Scholes’ research group at Princeton University receive an e-mail announcing the location and presenter of that week’s “photosynthetic subgroup” meeting. These emails always bear a humorously predictable final line: “X will present and Y will bring snacks.”

The meetings are meant to gather a subsection of Scholes’ team, and the organizer, Hannah Sayre, has more than just snacks to woo more savvy minds into her regular crowd. Sayre was recently appointed the center lead postdoc of BioLEC, an EFRC dedicated to Bioinspired Light Escalated Chemistry. Within months, she has invigorated the center’s home research group with novel scientific ideas under the aegis of the nationwide program.

During a recent research presentation, she shared her own latest findings and concluded with some mysteries yet to be resolved in her spectroscopy traces. A forthright discussion ensued, and she walked away from the hour-long meeting with an abundance of actionable suggestions from colleagues supplying a wide range of expertise.

“My doctoral advisors encouraged talking about your failures in group meetings,” said Sayer. “The idea is that, if you were not in this group, you would have to pay a heavy price for consultants to give you the level of expertise and advice that you can get from the people in this room. So why not take advantage of that?”

“If I’m running a group meeting, I can learn about science and at the same time mentor how people should be talking about science. If I’m editing a paper that somebody wrote, I’m still learning something from reading the paper.”

While a postdoctoral fellowship is widely seen as a research-oriented springboard to an independent career in science, Sayre has found herself leading BioLEC as a convener of people and synthesizer of ideas. Her candid, pragmatic organization of the dozen-strong subgroup sets a tone for the operation of the EFRC as a whole.

But the EFRC is nothing like a subgroup. Its scientists are spread across three time zones and seven institutions. “The EFRCs are really unique. We have to work as if we were one group at a physical location, but we aren’t,” said Maura Matvey, BioLEC’s project coordinator.

Indeed, at just over a year old, the research collective has felt the strain from its sheer expanse in people and ideas. “There is still an immense challenge for the center to coalesce and achieve our team goals,” said Scholes.

Sayre stood up to the challenge. Over the past year, her organizational efforts have solidified the ambitions set out in the initial proposal into actionable plans. She helps facilitate monthly intergroup videoconferences, regular phone calls with the U.S. Department of Energy, quarterly emergent topics workshops, and annual all-hands meetings.

But crucially, in addition to building a forum where scientists communicate their respective projects, Sayre has carefully laid down an avenue through which an incredible range of ongoing endeavors could together contribute to the realization of the center’s core vision. In fact, she believes that seemingly disparate ideas will enrich the vision itself.

For example, the center boasts a strong suite of expertise in organic chemistry, but the question lies in how the EFRC may leverage the cutting edge of chemical know-how for a much-needed industrial shift to renewable energy. In response, Sayre envisions that the light-initiated chemical transformations that many scientists across the center are actively perfecting will transfer to cleaner productions of benzene, toluene, and xylene (BTX)—fundamental building blocks of a variety of plastics. In the future, these feedstock chemicals will no longer need to be extracted from petroleum, but rather obtained from renewable sources.

“Energy-related science has to be high quality science,” Sayer explained. “The application for the organic reactions that have been done in many of our contributing groups so far has been for pharmaceutical use. But that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t use really similar science for an energy application. The goal is not to find the solution to the problem next year. It’s to find the small molecular changes that need to happen, so we can find the solution to the goal in ten years.”

To Scholes, Sayre’s work strikes an impressive balance between strategizing for the EFRC and daily, brick-and-mortar contributions to the scientific community.

When asked about her conviction to fundamental science as a way to address environmental challenges, Sayre spoke of her college experience. As a 20-year-old, she organized and advocated on behalf of local communities to battle chemical facilities that repeatedly flouted Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“When I told [the affected community members] that my major was chemistry, they would say, ‘Isn’t it weird that you’re a chemistry student and you care about the environment?’” said Sayre. “That was what made me think that the most amazing thing I could do was energy research, so that I could combine the desire to have a healthy environment with useful chemistry.”

Now, more than a decade later, as a leading researcher in one of the nation’s flagship programs on energy science, Sayre sees strategy and organization as an integral part of her brick-and-mortar contributions to the scientific community. “Even though we are making small changes, it’s the foundation for what could be a big change.”

About the author(s):

Ben Zhang is a third-year graduate student at Princeton University. His advisor, Gregory D. Scholes, is the Director of Bioinspired Light-Escalated Chemistry (BioLEC), an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Ben’s work focuses on quantum mechanical interpretations of reaction dynamics probed by femtosecond spectroscopy.