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Jeniree Flores, working in the Wooley Laboratory. (Credit: Wendy Herrick, Division of Research, Texas A&M University.)

COLLEGE STATION --

The College of Science closes out its #Take5 series in celebration of Texas A&M University's Student Research Week (March 24-28) by taking five with Jeniree A. Flores '15, a Ph.D. candidate in Department of Chemistry and a member of Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Karen L. Wooley's polymer chemistry-based research group.

A native of San Cristóbal, Venezuela, Flores earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Florida prior to coming to Texas A&M. Within the Wooley Laboratory, Flores works on a variety of research projects focused on designing, synthesizing and analyzing well-defined polymers and nanostructures to serve a wealth of fundamental and applied purposes from materials to medicine. In the process, she's discovered that lab research is as much about learning what doesn't work as what does, and that failure is just as important to the overall pursuit of scholarly knowledge and research as mentoring and motivating the next generation of scientists along the way.


How did you end up at Texas A&M University and in the Wooley Laboratory?
"When applying to graduate school, I only selected research universities that offered a strong program in polymer chemistry and also were conveniently located in a geographic area that didn't have to deal with harsh winters, since I am used to the tropical weather in Venezuela. As a consequence, my application pool consisted mainly of universities in the south, with Texas A&M and the University of Florida (UF) being at the top of my list. While I was pursuing my undergraduate career at UF, I attended a seminar where Dr. Wooley was presenting. This was the first time I heard of the research being pursued in the Wooley Lab, and I began investigating more about the research. Once I was accepted to Texas A&M, I decided I only wanted to work with Dr. Wooley; therefore, I showed her my determination to join the group by attending every group meeting and asking as many questions as possible. I probably also sent Dr. Wooley a lot more e-mails than necessary, but in the end, my willingness and determination found me a spot in the Wooley group."

Describe a typical day/week in the lab.
"A day in the lab is never typical, because you never know where your research will take you. For the most part, I set up a reaction and after the time is done and after a purification process, I try to find out through the characterization of the product if I obtained the targeted product. Typically, this process involves the employment of several characterization techniques and, more often than not, the results show that the desired product was not obtained. When this happens, I need to interpret the data in order to understand what is causing the problem and how it can be fixed. Therefore, I spend a small part of my day setting up the reaction, and I spend the rest of the time running around the hallways trying to use several instruments to obtain the data that will help me understand why a reaction doesn't work under certain conditions. But as Thomas Edison said, 'I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Therefore, I am waiting for that 10,001 Eureka moment!"

What's it like, working as a member of a 30-person group that features every level from undergraduate to postdoc and, individually and as a team, on such diverse, multi-million-dollar projects that span the gamut of fundamental and applied?
"Working in such a big group has advantages and disadvantages. Our approach toward research is highly independent because our advisor is not always available to have discussions with 30 people at a time, and this can be hard sometimes. However, an advantage of working with people of all levels is that as a graduate student, I have the support of the postdocs who have more experience doing research than me and who have also experienced the hardships of obtaining a Ph.D. This creates a support network that can help me understand the challenges of the project and at the same time overcome those challenges. In addition, I have the opportunity of mentoring undergraduates and younger graduate students who are willing to learn about our science. This allows me to learn but also to motivate the new generation of scientists. In the end, having such a big group means that I get to work and interact with many people who will one day enter the workforce and who can provide advice and support at later stages of my career.

"In terms of our projects, what I really like is that they all have applications in the real world, so I can see the impact that my research can have, and this motivates me every day. However, before I get to the application of the materials produced, I embark on a fundamental study to understand how the materials are synthesized and why they can be utilized for the desired application. Also, being a part of multi-million dollar projects means that I have the financial support that allows me to perform in-depth analysis of our products, which helps me do the best science I can."

Proudest moment thus far in your research career? How about biggest surprise?
"My proudest moment so far has been to participate in the award symposium in honor of Dr. Wooley for receiving the ACS Award in Polymer Chemistry. This is a very prestigious award, and it makes me proud to be a part of the team that, under Dr. Wooley's guidance, has made significant contributions to the development of the field of polymer chemistry. As a consequence of this award, I also had the opportunity to meet many influential figures in the field, including Nobel laureate Dr. Bob Grubbs who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005, which was a pretty nice surprise."

What would you tell others who might be considering going to graduate school and pursuing a career in scientific research?
"I would recommend to others that they think it through thoroughly before deciding to enroll in graduate school, because it will be one of the hardest experiences in a scientist's life but also one of the most gratifying. Graduate school consists of furthering your general knowledge about a broad topic in the classroom, but it also consists of learning a lot about something completely new. Most of the time, this happens through trial and error -- a process that can be incredibly frustrating and can have many disappointments. However, by experiencing failure, one learns to become tough and persistent and to question every single process. As a consequence, every little achievement in the research means a significant step forward and is, therefore, an incredible achievement. During this time, one also gets to influence other people and to contribute to the achievement of others, which is highly rewarding and comforting.

"Graduate school is tough, but it is a time in our lives where we get to learn about ourselves as much as we learn about science. I always need to remind myself that if it were easy, everyone would do it."

# # # # # # # # # #

Now in its 17th year, Student Research Week is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country's top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M, but also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week's schedule and specific events, see this recent feature article.

For more information on graduate programs and related research opportunities in the College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/for-graduates.php.

-aTm-

Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Real-World Application

    Flores demonstrates her hands-on experience with reusable magnetic-polymer nanoparticles developed by the Wooley Lab to assist in oil recovery systems. Each can absorb more than 10 times its own weight in crude oil. (Credit: Wendy Herrick, Division of Research, Texas A&M University.)

  • The Other Education

    Flores takes a break from the lab to take in a Fightin' Texas Aggie Football game -- another passion of her mentor Karen Wooley's outside of polymer chemistry. (Credit: Jeniree Flores.)

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