Amgen Scholars travel award helps Carolyn Valdez make crucial contacts

Carolyn Valdez was nervous, but ready. She was about to get up in front of 70 conference attendees, including prominent scientists in the field of proton-coupled electron transfer, and explain her research as a graduate student in chemistry. She came prepared, having rehearsed her 30-minute presentation many times before. Still, this felt like a big deal — and it was.

“I was especially nervous because I’m in my fourth year of graduate school, and after my fifth I’ll start applying for postdocs. These are the people I might want to work for next year,” says Valdez, a 2008 California Institute of Technology Amgen Scholar who works with Professor Jim Mayer at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Valdez attended the meeting — the 2nd International Conference on Proton-Coupled Electron Transfer in Skokloster, Sweden — with support from the Amgen Scholars Alumni Travel Awards. Funded by the Amgen Foundation, the Amgen Scholars Program introduced the awards in 2010 to support students’ professional development following their summers as Amgen Scholars.

“Scientific conferences are a key element in building a successful research profile,” says Michael Bergren, director of the Amgen Scholars Global Program Office, which administers the awards, and associate dean of academic and research initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The sooner early-career scientists can get experience presenting their data, the sooner they will be able build their communication skills and network with others in their specialty,” he adds.

For students, finding funds to attend conferences is a challenge. The Alumni Travel Awards covered Valdez’s flight and bus travel to the conference center, which was situated on a lush mountainside an hour outside of Stockholm. “The award made it much easier for me to go,” she says. Without it, “I probably would have picked a local conference that maybe wasn’t in my exact field. [With the travel award,] I didn’t have to compromise.”

Valdez was among just a few graduate students attending the conference whose work was picked by the meeting’s organizers to feature in a presentation rather than a poster. She was scheduled to talk in the same session as top professors in the field with decades of experience.

At last, it was time for Valdez to take the stage, get wired with a microphone and call up her slides to two, large projected screens. She looked at the people staring back at her, including her adviser. Then, she took a deep breath and began to speak.

Valdez’s research aims to understand some of the fundamental properties of metal oxides — in particular, zinc oxide nanoparticles, which are used in solar cells, wastewater remediation and in lotions and sunscreens. Past research has characterized these particles by assessing how electrons are transferred by them, a major principle behind how solar cells work, but scientists have discovered that proton transfer matters, too. Valdez has devised a way to measure electrons and protons, which  may ultimately lend insight into the design of more efficient solar cells and other energy-harvesting devices.

The crowd was extraordinarily receptive. “After my talk, I was excited that almost 20 people asked questions and suggested experiments,” Valdez says. The experience allowed her to make crucial new connections with students and professors, which she hopes will help pave the way to collaborations or job openings as she finishes her PhD.