Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers from across the greater NYC area to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotechnology scene. Today we sit down with Dr. Anibal Boscoboinik, a Staff Scientist at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), Brookhaven National Lab.
Tell us a little bit about where you are from.
I am from a small town called Villa Dolores in the Cordoba province in Argentina. It is located in a quiet and relaxing valley called “Traslasierra”, by some hills with rivers and dams. This place has a unique vibe during the summer. People are warm and friendly there.
Tell us about your professional journey so far. What were the critical turning points in your career and any lessons learned that you would like to highlight). How did you figure out you wanted to study surface science?
Looking back, I realize that I had great mentors at each step of my career. I did my undergrad in a small city called San Luis, a couple of hundred miles away from my hometown in Argentina. I studied chemistry there and made a ton of friends. I am still in close contact and even have scientific collaborations with some of them. I then worked for a few months for Kimberly Clark Corp. (KCC) in one of their Buenos Aires branches. During this time at KCC, I learned a lot from my mentor there, but I decided that industry work was not what I wanted. So, I moved to Milwaukee, WI, here in the U.S., for my PhD studies. Milwaukee is also a great city, with a thriving young and open-minded population around the university. I had a great time there, both socially and professionally. There I also made another ton of friends, and I met a great girl I later married. After that, we moved to Berlin, Germany, where I did my postdoc for about three years. Berlin was an exciting place to live, very diverse and dynamic. Awesome new friends and mentors again. Our first son was born there. In 2013, we moved back to the U.S. I started working as a Materials Scientist at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), which is part of Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Long Island, NY. The CFN is one of the 5 Nanoscale Research Centers (NSRC) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and BNL is one of the 17 DOE National Labs. Also, a fantastic place to work, with some of the world’s most advanced instrumentation and a bunch of brilliant people. I enjoy, in particular, the CFN culture, which is growing layers and becoming thicker.
The most important lesson that I have learned is that you must surround yourself with great people. This is important socially and professionally. Networks are critical for life and work. New ideas always come from stimulating conversations with others, and you would not have these conversations if you don’t have interesting people around you. The organization that funded my stay in Germany (Alexander von Humboldt Foundation) has this concept very clear, and they always emphasize that they “support people, not projects”. They also organize many social events to bring together the people they support, and that has worked very well for them, with 55 Nobel Prize winners among their fellows.
How did I figure out I wanted to study surface science? I don’t know if I purposely chose surface science; that was the path that life took me through because of the people I knew, and I liked it once I was already there. It is fascinating to picture structures and processes down to the atomic scale using the tools we have in surface science. The possibility of using well-defined nanostructures, and understand them down to the last atom, makes this approach also a great way to use in complement with theoretical methods.
What group are leading now, and what is the group’s overall focus? Can you tell me about some potential future applications for your work?
I supervise a group of young scientists at the CFN, and we study two-dimensional nanoporous materials. Most of our focus is on silicates and aluminosilicates, which are made of the three most abundant elements in the earth’s crust (O, Si, Al). We do fundamental work trying to understand how these materials are structured depending on how we synthesize them. Once we understand their structure, we used them to gain insights into how small molecules interact with them. Understanding these interactions can provide guidelines for the design of practical materials for specific applications. Some potential future applications of new materials based on our work include more efficient inexpensive heterogeneous catalysts, membranes for separation, coatings for corrosion protection, and systems for trapping gases.
What Is the next big project you are planning to undertake?
It is hard to know what will come next, but a couple of things we are doing that I am very excited about are developing methodologies for trapping noble gases in relation to nuclear energy applications (patent submitted), and the preparation of new thin silicate materials by delamination of layered ones, that can be later used to make useful heterostructures. These two areas could really have a societal impact. Another exciting emerging area that is starting to sound very appealing is that of driving catalytic systems into more active or selective regimes using periodic stimuli; this has been referred to as “dynamic catalysis” in the literature.
Do you collaborate with groups in the Greater NYC area? How is it complementary and important to your work?
We collaborate with various groups working on nanomaterials, mostly related to catalysis applications at universities such as Columbia, Princeton, NYU, Stony Brook, and Yale. Many of the groups we collaborate with are attracted by the freely available cutting-edge instrumentation and expert staff we have at our nanocenter, and often our research interests intersect. That is the case for example in our collaboration with Eric Altman at Yale, who also works on 2D-silicates and 2D-zeolite related structures as model systems for heterogeneous catalysts. We are very lucky to be in an area like this one, with such a high density of great research institutions that can interact and brew new ideas.
Has COVID-19 affected how you do science? Has this experience surprised you in any positive way?
This has been a very tough year for many people, and I feel grateful that my family is in good health. On the science side, the situation has forced us to be more organized and coordinate our activities better to maintain social distancing when working in the lab. I am particularly disorganized by nature, so this has been a learning experience. Overall, we have adapted quite well, and the improved organization might have even translated into one of our most productive years. Since we work from home about 50% of the time, the commute time has been significantly reduced. Reducing the number of in-person meetings has also saved time but at the expense of also reducing social interactions. This is what I miss the most, talking to people in person and with no masks. Conversations with people are more enjoyable when I can see their facial expressions. Hopefully, we can have a bit party this summer to compensate.
You are a very strong advocate for early-career scientists as well as STEM outreach. Tell us a bit about your involvement with various organizations (ASAP, BWIS, IWD, others) are you involved with, what’s their mission, why it’s important to you, and what you do for them? Any stories you want to share about the role and importance of mentorship in supporting women and early career researchers in STEM.
I feel very close to early-career scientists as I was there not that long ago (or at least I’d like to think that way) and I know what it feels like, and how challenging of a time it can be. Probably the most stressful part is the uncertainty when looking for a job. I try to participate, advise, and help whenever I can through organizations like the Association of Students And Postdocs (ASAP) at BNL or participating in events organized by Brookhaven Women In Science (BWIS). Organizations like BWIS, that promote equal opportunity and advancement for women in science are very important. I think we still have a long way to go in recognizing our internal biases, these changes take generations. I have seen firsthand how difficult this is. A female colleague pointed out manifestations of these biases at our group meetings, and it was eye-opening to start paying attention to our group dynamics. I have seen myself doing things wrong when looking back at specific situations. We all have unconscious biases coming to a great extent from the way we were raised. Becoming aware of them, one individual at the time is the first step toward a broader cultural change.
Since many of our biases are internalized during our formation years, it is very important to promote equal opportunity in STEM within the younger population. I was very lucky that the first PhD student to graduate with me, Dr. Nusnin Akter, was very active in this area, and got me involved in some of her work encouraging women in high school to participate in STEM activities. This was very inspiring. By the way, BWIS always finds the best speakers for the workshops and lectures they organize. They are always excellent. Highly recommended.
What do you do for fun outside of your work?
I play soccer with friends when I can. The Brookhaven lab has a team, and we play in the second division of the Suffolk County over-30 years-old league. We are not very good, but we have fun. Sometimes I play chess as well, also in the mediocre range. Something else that is a lot of fun lately is to (safely) do experiments with my kids at home. They are 8 and 4, and they always come up with amazing extra ideas and interesting thoughts when we do experiments.
If you could go back in time, what advice will you give to your younger self?
Enjoy every minute, even the terrible ones, you can always find a positive angle to look at things. Make mistakes, as many as possible while you are young, and learn from them. Mistakes get more expensive as you get older. Be respectful and thoughtful; be aware of how your actions affect others. Value the good people around you and keep them close.
What advice/suggestions would you give to early-career scientists in the nanoscience field?
Nanoscience is fascinating. It can, and it will change the world. I know that. You can be part of that change. You just have to work hard and enjoy it. If you learn to enjoy it, the hard work gets lighter and more rewarding. Then, at some point, work and fun will get all mixed up.