First Generation Graduate and MSE Postdoc Doesn’t Plan On Leaving Academia

Gabby Esposito, Written Communications Assistant

photo of Monia Nielsen, postdoc at the IN-siTu/Operando Electron Microscopy (InToEM) center, in front of the DENSsolution Climate system at UConn Tech Park.

Monia Nielsen, postdoc at the IN-siTu/Operando Electron Microscopy (InToEM) center, in front of the DENSsolution Climate system at UConn Tech Park.

When Monia Nielson was in the midst of pursuing her PhD in Election Nanoscopy, she discovered the beauty of looking through an electron transmission microscope. This was also the first impactful time she was introduced to the world of materials science. Nielson says that from then on, she never looked back.

Now a UConn materials science and engineering (MSE) post doctoral researcher under Assistant Professor Yuanyuan Zhu, Nielson exercises her interest in the subject officially. In the past, she studied nanotechnology, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Copenhagen in 2008 and then 2015. She then went on for her PhD in from the DTU Center for Electron Nanoscopy, also in Denmark.

Still not ready to leave academia, Nielson decided her next move would be a postdoc. This time, she would change it up a bit more by studying in a different country. The choice of where exactly that would be was not random.

Nielson had already known Zhu after reading her work and meeting briefly at a conference. According to her, she had finished her PhD just around the beginning of the pandemic and job opportunities in Denmark were sparse. Nielson had decided to apply abroad, looking into groups dealing with in situ microscopy experiments. While doing so, she noticed Zhu had an open position.

“I contacted her to hear if the position was still open, and she was currently in the process of interviewing people. I promised to send an application within two days and I was contacted the following day, informing me I had an interview and the rest is history,” Nielson says.

According to her, when she received an offer to come work with Zhu’s group, there was no question about attending UConn.

But long before her interest in MSE brought her to Conn., Nielson had always loved learning about this realm of science.

“While in high school I developed a keen interest in science and found the combination of chemical and physical characterization extremely interesting,” she says. According to her, this is what initially led her to study nanoscience.

However, her curiosity did not end in nanoscience. 

“I am a very curious person of nature, and I like to understand how the world around us works,” she says.

After discovering the electron transmission microscope, she wanted to add an engineering component to her research.

“MSE is a broad field that combines engineering, physics and chemistry principles to solve real-world problems, which I am now doing on the nanoscale looking at catalysts with an in situ environmental transmission electron microscope (ETEM). So, it is more a combination of two great worlds,” she says.

Additionally, she had never felt a desire to leave learning. After her master’s, she had a few interviews for jobs in industry, but those just increased her pull to education.

“I fear industry would feel mundane. What I like about working in a university setting, is that no day is the same. It is interest and discovery driven and I can focus on something I find interesting,” Nielson says.

As the first person in her family to receive a university degree, getting the most out of academics has been important to Nielson.

“This may sound corny, but my biggest achievement is getting a PhD degree,” she says.

A couple months after achieving this huge milestone, Nielson set out to climb the next bigger one. She began her postdoc in January of 2021. According to Nielson, Zhu has been an influential mentor throughout that time.

“She has taught me many things, such as how to better structure my research, how to approach a challenge, new techniques working with in situ TEM and catalyst characterization. Most of all, she managed to pass on her passion of in situ TEM characterization of catalysts and after every meeting I feel so inspired,” she says about Zhu.

In broad terms, the research Nielson works on, aside Zhu, seeks to use in situ ETEM to produce a better understanding for designing new and improved catalysts. In her words, “in situ ETEM plays a crucial role in determining the catalytic performance and to understand the physical and chemical properties of catalysts during reaction and provide fundamental insight into the underlying reaction mechanism.”

The specific research Nielson is currently working on aside Zhu deals with the dynamic structural changes during the catalytic lifetime (activation, reaction and deactivation/regeneration). According to Zhu, she is “extremely lucky” to be able to study this with the highly specialized climate holder from DENSsolution at the IN-siTu/Operando Electron Microscopy (InToEM) center.

However, if Nielson had to choose her favorite research she’s done, she says it would be on heterogeneous catalysis.

“It’s an interesting subject. It is a key process to a sustainable future as it is the center of chemicals and energy industries. The insight from fundamental in situ studies could have a tremendous impact in the world,” she says.

Ultimately, the work on catalysts which Nielson and Zhu’s group focus on, is key to developing solutions to many of the world’s environmental challenges such as energy shortage, air pollution and climate change.

Though working and learning is a driving force in Nielson’s life, she also finds time for her personal hobbies. Nielson says she enjoys reading a good fantasy novel or solving “twisty” puzzles like a Rubik’s Cube. For someone who spends most of the day in a lab, Nielson says she really likes hiking.

While you think that in several years after her postdoc Nielson might be able to take up hiking more, she says she isn’t planning on breaking up with education just yet.

“I hope to pursue a position within academia. Maybe another postdoc position or two to gain even more knowledge, experience and to expand my network within the in situ ETEM field before hopefully starting my own group,” she says.

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