The green potential of supramolecular cages

  • April 17, 2023
The green potential of supramolecular cages

Scholar-Elect Sabrina Hu talks about how Chemistry can help in the battle against climate change

Professor Nitschke's laboratory creates complex structures through relatively easy synthetic means.  It’s really powerful what they might be able to do.

Sabrina Hu

Growing up in Houston, Texas, Sabrina Hu [2023] experienced and saw first hand the destructive impacts of climate change as hurricanes increased in both frequency and severity over the last decade. When she started studying Chemistry at university she soon saw its potential for contributing to tackling climate change and she also got involved in policy forums as well as practical work on reducing her university’s carbon footprint.

For her PhD in Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, which she starts in the autumn, she will be working in Professor Jonathan Nitschke’s lab. It designs hollow supramolecular capsules or ‘cages’, which can be used to transport molecules to where they are needed. The idea is that the cages can be used to more effectively deliver drug therapies, reduce the costs and environmental effects of petroleum refining and in many other areas. “The lab creates complex structures through relatively easy synthetic means.  It’s really powerful what they might be able to do,” says Sabrina, who is interested in the green potential of the cages, for instance, their role in finding a greener way to perform industrial chemical separations and in solar-driven desalination.

Early years

Sabrina’s interest in science took off when she encountered great teachers at high school. An avid reader, she describes herself as curious and introverted as a young child. Her favourite subjects in middle school were English and History, in part because of exceptional teachers, but in high school she gravitated towards Chemistry and Physics, with teachers again playing a key role. “They showed me what science could be,” she says. In addition to her studies, Sabrina played a traditional Chinese instrument – the guzheng – for several years, did a lot of painting, ran cross-country and volunteered at various Houston hospitals and science museums. 

When she finished high school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She was interested in people’s behaviour so she started a Psychology degree at Washington University. Through a  federal work-study programme, which helps students find part-time jobs to do alongside their education, she got a job as a research assistant in a psychology laboratory studying language and memory. She was doing preliminary analysis of data and scheduling participants for studies, but she found the field too statistics-based for her liking. She wanted something more tangible and hands-on. 

At the time she was also taking introductory courses in Medicine, Chemistry and Biology as she was interested in going to medical school and found she really enjoyed Chemistry. So after her first year she applied to a summer research programme, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to do research in a laboratory of her choice. She chose a Chemical Engineering laboratory as she was thinking of transferring to Engineering at the time.

Climate change

It was the summer of 2020 and Covid was ripping through the US so Sabrina couldn’t physically go into the lab. Instead she did a virtual project studying renewable energy. Her part focused on wind energy in Denmark and her two collaborators covered different renewables in different countries. The project was a turning point for Sabrina as she learned more about climate change and how Science and Technology, and Chemistry in particular, are poised to help. She switched to Chemistry. In summer 2021 she finally went back into a laboratory – her first Chemistry laboratory, working for Professor Bill Tolman, where she learned the fundamentals of Chemistry research. Around this time she also added History as a double major and a Mathematics minor. 

Sabrina continued to work there while studying until mid-2022 when she applied for a summer science exchange programme which involved travelling to Germany and doing Chemistry research in a German university laboratory.  It was while she was there that she met her future Cambridge supervisor, Professor Nitschke. He gave a presentation on the work his supramolecular Chemistry lab is doing at a conference hosted by Sabrina’s German university, Ruhr Universitaet Bochum, and, fascinated by his work on supramolecular cages, Sabrina approached him to find out more. He encouraged her to apply to Cambridge and to Gates Cambridge. 

Extracurricular work on sustainability

On her return to Washington University from Germany Sabrina joined a different organic Chemistry lab.  Alongside spending three days a week in the lab, Sabrina was working in the university’s Office of Sustainability, looking at ways to reduce the university’s carbon footprint. “My role involved identifying and researching new pathways to achieve carbon neutrality,” says Sabrina. 

She has been working in the sustainability office for two years: the first year involved studying the feasibility of tapping into geothermal energy to facilitate the transition of the main undergraduate campus from steam heating to hot water distribution heating, which is more efficient. She had to, for instance, seek out an engineering firm for the university to work with and put together a report on what other universities were doing. This year she is helping to build a model to quantify student and business air travel so the university can understand what their Scope 3 emissions are in order to offset them. “It has been very rewarding to understand how institutions think about carbon neutrality. I learnt so much more than I would have just being in the classroom,” says Sabrina.

Around the same time Sabrina took a class led by a professor who co-leads a constituency of the UNFCCC, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This professor takes her students each year to COP, or Conference of the Parties, the annual UN conference on climate change, to learn about the international response to climate change. Sabrina therefore found herself travelling to COP27 in Egypt last November. “It was an incredible experience which taught me a lot about international climate change policy. I want to eventually use my science background to effect change in international climate change policy, and that experience was foundational for me,” says Sabrina. 

At Cambridge, she hopes to continue learning about how her research in Chemistry can overlap with climate change policy and is looking forward to linking up with Cambridge Zero and to joining the interdisciplinary and international communities at Cambridge through its colleges and through Gates Cambridge.

“Climate change is the problem I want to work on for life,” she says simply.

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