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Meet Cicely Shillingford: Chemistry PhD Student

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers from across the city to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotechnology scene. Today we sit down with Cicely Shillingford, a 4th year PhD student in the Chemistry Department at New York University (NYU).

Cicely Shillingford, Chemistry PhD student at NYU.

Tell us a little bit about where you are from.

I was born in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada and lived there until I was 13, after which my family relocated to San Antonio, Texas. Growing up in Mississauga was wonderful; my upbringing was enriched with culture from my parents’ Caribbean heritage, as Toronto is quite a multicultural city. My mother is from Trinidad and my father is from Dominica, so we travelled to the Caribbean often. In some ways, Trinidad also feels like home. I am the product of a very liberal and active upbringing in which my parents were determined to provide me with educational and social opportunities that they could not access. As a result, I played lots of sports, excelled in gymnastics and cheerleading, and was driven to science museums for as long as I can remember.

Where did you complete your undergraduate and any graduate degrees prior to this one?

My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Waterloo (Canada). I majored in biochemistry and completed a research thesis on structural biochemistry, whereby I studied computational modeling of mutant fibronectin protein domains. I also participated in the university’s world-renowned co-operative education program, whereby students alternate between work and academic terms for 5 years. I completed ¾ co-op terms at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering working under the supervision of Joanna Aizenberg. This was the inception of my research experiences in materials science and nanotechnology. More on this later!

Cicely working at her desk at the Molecular Design Institute at the NYU Department of Chemistry.

What is your current status as a graduate student?

I am at the tail end of my 4th year at NYU and my research is in the fields of physical chemistry and materials science. My plan and hope is to wrap up in December of 2020.

What group are you in and what is the group’s overall focus?

I work for Marcus Weck who is a polymer chemist by training. We are a diverse group of polymer and material scientists divided into three subgroups: 1) designing helical and sheet forming polymers that mimic protein secondary structures 2) multicompartment micelles and nanoreactors for heterogeneous catalysis and 3) colloidal synthesis, assembly, and crystallization. The threads that unify us are polymers and self-assembly, but each subgroup operates on a different length scale from angstroms to microns.

What is your particular research on?

My research focuses on the self-assembly and crystallization of colloids. In my work, colloidal crystals and complexly shaped building blocks are fabricated via capillary assembly of colloidal particles onto nano-patterned surfaces, a method that has dramatically accelerated the production of precisely structured colloidal arrays and superstructures. Whereby particles of numerous shapes and chemical compositions are driven into patterns by the capillary force, the same force responsible for ring-shaped stains garnered from spilled coffee. I have developed various advances in templated capillary assembly, in which I unite exact spatial arrangement of colloids with post-assembly applications.

Cicely working at the bench with a patterned silicon wafer. Cicely uses these patterned wafers, along with soft lithography techniques, to create polymer replicas which are then incorporated into microfluidic cells for particle assembly studies.

Can you tell me about some potential future applications for your work?

The hierarchical self-assembly of building blocks into useful structures is present in many natural and man-made systems. For example, fibers assemble into threads, which themselves weave into fabric, which is sewn into clothing. Colloidal chemistry has long been used as a model for nature's hierarchical assembly processes. Unremarkable on their own, these micron-sized spheres exhibit a cornucopia of remarkable properties when assembled into crystals. Colloidal crystals can emit iridescent color akin to opals, deriving from the same optical principles that cause the sun to appear red when it moves through colloidal water droplets in the air (i.e. clouds) at sunset. This colorimetric feature of colloidal crystals makes them useful for developing technologies such as optical sensors, non-chemical pigments for aesthetic applications, and screens that can emit color with only the input of light, not electricity.

How did you figure out you wanted to specialize in this area?

I slipped into it, literally. My first research project was developing a material called SLIPS (slippery liquid infused porous surfaces) at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. I was applying slippery surface coatings to fabrics, based off of the nanostructure of the carnivorous pitcher plant. It was during this project that I was introduced to colloids; I grew particles onto the surface of the fabric to create nanoscale roughness. I deeply enjoyed working on applied projects that I could explain to my parents, but since I was studying biochemistry during my undergraduate I had a lot to learn about chemistry and materials. When I applied to graduate schools, I decided that I wanted to work on more theoretical projects and tackle materials synthesis from the perspective of a chemist.

Cicely utilizes optical microscopy to observe particle movement in real time. She studies how particles crystallize under the confinement of nano-structured surface patterns.

You are the current President of the Chemist Club at NYU. Can you tell us what the Chemist Club is and what kinds of activities the Club participates in at NYU?

The Chemists’ Club is a non-profit NYC-based organization that serves students and professionals in chemistry, chemical engineering, and supporting fields. We have members spanning from undergraduates to senior level executives in the industry. My role within the NYU chapter is to plan professional development and networking events to help students find work opportunities in the sciences. I organize a variety of local panel discussions, social outings (e.g. chemical plant tours, brewery tours), and assist with the planning of major industry galas. I also lead a committee of about 10-15 people to plan the annual Bonding Conference, a panel and networking event to connect students and professionals. We have assembled thought leaders from major companies such as Google, BASF, UNESCO, Dow, Deloitte, Microsoft, and more to discuss hot topics including sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and digital innovation. Following a panel discussion, students are invited to present posters and usually obtain job offers, interviews, and internships from this event. It’s really fulfilling for me to plan this particular conference and help students navigate the pipeline to high achievement, you can watch more on our YouTube page!

You have had two different stints at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in Boston. Can you tell us a bit more about those experiences?

I adored my experiences in Cambridge and Boston! The Wyss Institute is situated within Harvard’s campus and I worked in Joanna Aizenberg’s research group of over 40 people at the time. During my first tenure in the lab I walked to Harvard’s red-bricked campus to discover that I would be working on a project involving slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces (SLIPS). My mentor handed me a gray cotton t-shirt and told me to modify the fabric to be slippery enough to repel everything – water, oil, ketchup, everything. I developed multi-repellent textiles inspired by the Nepenthes pitcher plant. This work was published in Nanotechnology in December 2013 while I was a college junior. I returned to Boston in January 2014 and first worked on photonic crystal films based on butterfly wing-type light diffraction. I applied iridescent structurally coloured films to everything from flexible plastics to shot glasses with hidden images. For my main project, I invented a colour-changing oxygen sensor modeled after the oxygen-dependent polymerization of melanin precursors in the skin. This work was patented and published as well in 2016! My experiences at Wyss/Harvard emboldened me to pursue research in graduate school.

Can you give us a little background on the World Science Festival and how you are involved with them?

The World Science Festival hosts science extravaganzas worldwide to help younger generations and the public to appreciate the global impacts of science and technology. I specifically volunteer for their City of Science program, which is a compilation of travelling hands on exhibits ensuing an all day festival that rotates throughout the five boroughs of NYC, and has recently expanded to Westchester and New Jersey. I love this event because it gives me the opportunity to show kids of colour that they too can be scientists and be the role model that I never had growing up. I manage the biomimicry exhibit, of course! I have even been able to incorporate some of my own bio-inspired research into the activities. Five times a year I teach kids things such as how Velcro was invented from a Swiss engineer based on burdock burrs, and then I suit kids up with Velcro kneepads and gloves and watch as they hilariously struggle to crawl across a Velcro obstacle course for 8 hours!

Cicely using scanning electron microscopy to analyze the size, shape, and surface morphology of colloidal particles.

Where do you hope to take your career in the next 5 or 10 years?

10 years, yikes! I am trying not to think about that. I know that my interests, skills, and circumstances will evolve dramatically beyond my PhD and I choose to go where the wind blows rather than put myself into box. Generally though, I would like to access a managerial track within a company as soon as possible. I like research, but I need time away from the bench for a change! I need to work on teams and share ideas with people, I am outgoing, energetic, and innovative; traits that I believe are wasted while working on a specific research problem at the bench. My preference is to work for a small or midsize company once I finish my PhD so that I can be involved with more aspects of company growth than just the science, particularly while my mind is still rife with creativity. Remaining within the fields of materials science, materials technology, colloid science, cosmetics, and surface science is preferred. However, I am also strongly interested in working for science-based non-profits and/or taking on a scientific advisory or consulting type role. Ultimately I am considering a future career in policy.

What do you do for fun outside of your program?

Trust me, watching kids wipe out on a Velcro floor for 8 hours IS fun! For real though, I am very active with yoga and weight lifting, I even used to help coach the NYU cheerleading team. I have made great friendships within graduate school and the Chemists’ Club and we socialize frequently. I believe I have maintained a fairly reasonable work-life balance and have been able to enjoy all the New York City has to offer! I adore the Monday night movies in Bryant Park, I have an ever-growing stack of Broadway playbills, and I travel on weekends as often as I can. I am originally from Toronto so I go to Canada a lot, and my family is Caribbean so I am a total beach bum!

If you could go back to the first day you started your graduate work and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

Not to take graduate school too seriously, it is really a means to an end academically. Also, I would have told myself to be empowered enough to meet with my advisor when I needed guidance and assert myself earlier on. It is very easy to be swept up into the competitiveness of comparing your productivity with other people in the department and/or research group. I have learned that I need to own my chosen quality of life and not worry about how many papers other people are publishing and how many hours they are putting in. We all have different needs, expectations, and circumstances. Graduate school, above all, is a rare chance in life to have work flexibility, creativity, and pursue opportunities for public service. Extracurricular activities and civic engagement should be encouraged and are nothing to be ashamed of; there is more to life than any individual’s specific project. As scientists, we have a responsibility to change the public perception of science and diversify the STEM populace!

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