Emerging Investigator Series: Stacey Louie

Dr. Stacey Louie is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Houston. She received her Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014 and conducted a U.S. National Research Council (NRC) postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – Gaithersburg from 2014 to 2016. Her research covers the environmental implications and applications of inorganic and polymeric nanomaterials, with a specific focus on developing approaches to characterize the dynamic interactions of nanomaterials with small molecules, natural organic matter, and biomolecules and the effects of organic surface coatings on their aggregation, transport, and reactivity. She seeks to apply suites of characterization tools to gain a mechanistic understanding of the fate and behavior of nanomaterials in complex media in both natural environments and engineered systems.

Read Stacey Louie ’s Emerging Investigator Series article “Polymeric Nanocarriers for Agricultural Applications: Synthesis, Characterization, and Environmental and Biological Interactions” and read more about her in the interview below:


Your recent Emerging Investigator Series paper focuses on Polymeric Nanocarriers for Agricultural Applications: Synthesis, Characterization, and Environmental and Biological Interactions. How has your research evolved from your first article to this most recent article?

My prior research as a Ph.D. student was focused on the influence of natural organic matter surface coatings on nanoparticle aggregation and transport behaviour. During my postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn more advanced methods to characterize the chemistry of organic surface coatings on nanoparticles and their transformations. This focus on the organic-nanoparticle interactions led to my current interests in expanding to polymeric nanoparticles along with inorganic nanoparticles, and the skills gained through my Ph.D. and post-doc experiences have been invaluable to be able to probe nanomaterial properties and behaviours in complex media.

What aspect of your work are you most excited about at the moment?

My research involves evaluating dynamic nanoparticle interactions in complex media, from surface transformations and reactivity to release of active ingredients from polymeric nanoparticles. I enjoy projects where many components are interacting in the sample such that there is a real need to apply a multitude of complementary characterization tools. In my recent and current projects, I have found that the results of initial experiments in these complex samples can seem confounding or even contradictory, but with additional characterization tools applied, at some point all of the results are found to converge to one consistent and logical story of how the nanoparticle is behaving. It is satisfying to finally gather enough information to make the transition from confusion to understanding.

In your opinion, what are the most important questions to be asked/answered in this field of research?

Developing quantitative structure-activity relationships to predict nanomaterial behaviour in natural environments will be important but very challenging. Small-scale laboratory studies that identify mechanisms for nanomaterial behaviours may not translate to more complex systems, and we need to identify which properties of the nanomaterial and its environment are ultimately critical to predict its behaviour and which become relatively insignificant.

What do you find most challenging about your research?

Nanomaterials can participate in a wide variety of processes (dissolution, aggregation, surface transformations, reactions, etc.) that are often highly sensitive to the surrounding conditions. Being able to selectively probe one or two specific processes while controlling for others can be difficult or infeasible. For example, specifically identifying the effect of an adsorbed surface coating on nanoparticle reactivity is difficult when the surface coating also changes the nanoparticle aggregation behaviour. It can be challenging to determine whether it is worthwhile to continue attempting to optimize experimental conditions or whether a feasibility limit has been reached.

In which upcoming conferences or events may our readers meet you?

I will likely attend the GRC on Nanotechnology for Agriculture and Food, as well as the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO) conference in 2020.

How do you spend your spare time?

I enjoy knitting, sewing, and community gardening but rarely have time to work on any projects lately. I also enjoy music and video games and do still attend concerts on occasion.

Which profession would you choose if you were not a scientist?

I might be working at a garden center, a video game journalist, or perhaps a librarian/archivist.

Can you share one piece of career-related advice or wisdom with other early career scientists?

I think understanding your own specific skill set is important, so that you can identify what projects you are best suited to tackle or where your skills can contribute toward collaborative projects. An external perspective can be helpful to figure this out.

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