Jette Katja Mathiesen is a postdoc at University of Copenhagen in the Center for High Entropy Alloys Catalysis (CHEAC) & Dept. of Chemistry

Congratulations on receiving a Villum International Postdoc (VIPO) grant!

Please tell us about your research and why is it important.

To meet the demands required to reach a sustainable society, it is crucial to apply new CO2 neutral pathways to fuel our society that avoids the large consumption of fossil fuels. With my research enabled by the Villum International Postdoc Programme grant, I will investigate how sustainable energy conversion can be realized by synthesizing and synthetically tuning new improved next-generation multimetallic nanoparticles (NPs) for use as catalysts in crucial reactions. Using these multimetallic nanocatalysts, chemical species such as CO2 or N2 can be converted into valuable fuels or chemicals without the use of fossil fuels, which paves the way for a restructuring of the chemical industry as we know it today. As the catalytic conversion processes are facilitated on the surface of the NP catalysts, the key to develop and eventually implement new efficient catalysts is to elucidate the catalytic behavior on the NP surfaces under real working conditions. Thus, by combining surface-sensitive analysis (i.e. X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS)) with examination of the internal atomic structure (i.e. X-ray scattering) during working conditions (i.e. in situ), I will provide a thorough and holistic view of catalytically tuned multimetallic NPs to understand how NPs facilitate essential catalytical reactions. Identifying the crucial descriptor driving these reactions will ultimately enable the ability to rationally design new and highly active catalysts to fuel our future.

What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?

During my PhD, I came to realize that in order to fully map out the function of NPs, it is not enough to only study the interior atomic structure. Instead, to understand how the elemental composition, structure and morphology affects the catalytic properties, it is essential to include the characteristics of the NP surface as this dictates the activity and selectivity of the reaction. To facilitate this expanded characterization ability, I would start my 3-year Villum International Postdoc with a 1-year research stay in Prof. Anders Nilsson’s group at Stockholm University, who is considered as a leading scientist in the field of in situ XPS.  A research stay in the group of Prof. Anders Nilsson will therefore be a crucial and unique opportunity for me to acquire important competencies, extending my international research network and develop the knowledge needed to be able to investigate the surface characteristics that determine the catalytic properties of the synthesized NPs. After a year in Stockholm, I will return to DTU Physics to continue my investigations and implement my new knowledge within the SurfCat research center. Ultimately, the Villum International Postdoc grant provides me with a fantastic opportunity to initiate an independent research career by providing me with 3 years exclusively dedicated to my own research, which I am truly excited about. 

Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?

Throughout my time at university, I have been in several research groups, which has been a great and beneficial experience. I did my bachelor in Chemistry at Aarhus University, while my supervisor was at the University of Southern Denmark. Afterwards, I moved to Copenhagen, where I got my MSc in Advanced and Applied Chemistry at DTU. Lastly, I got my Ph.D. in Chemistry at University of Copenhagen, where I have been employed as a Postdoc since May 2021. 

How did you choose the field you are now specialized in?

I was actually very much in doubt about whether I should study chemistry or physics, but I eventually chose chemistry. I really like a challenge, so my main motivation for studying chemistry was that I found it less intuitive to understand compared to physics. However, I could not really shake off my interest in physics completely. Luckily, I found the perfect combination of the two in my current field of research: materials chemistry. The “holy grail” of materials chemistry is to map out the relation between the synthesis, structure and properties of a functional material, which means I am dependent on both my chemical and physical background. Within my current research field, we uncover these relations using time-resolved X-ray scattering at large-scale synchrotron facilities around the world. During my third year of my bachelor, I had my first encounter with time-resolved X-ray scattering by investigating the dynamics of operating battery materials, and I was completely sold! That I was able to look into the atomic structure of a battery and understand the tiny chemical processes that defines our society in so many aspects were beyond fascinating. And even today, this fascination still drives me in my research.

What motivated you to study physics/chemistry?

I always found key issues and solutions related to our climate and sustainable energy very interesting. However, as tackling such serious issues spans within all research fields, the interdisciplinary field of combining chemistry and physics seemed the obvious choice. By implementing both chemistry and physics, a whole new dimension can be accessed to answering important questions helping our society. I have mostly been exploring fundamental science by looking into synthesizing new materials or investigate the dynamics of how nanoparticles are formed. However, the goal of actually implementing the research you have been exploring in our society can seem too far away within this field. By combining chemistry and physics in a more engineering direction, the road from designing something useful in a fundamental manner to applying it in a technology that can benefit the society seems more realistic and straightforward.

Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?

I have been incredibly lucky to have had several role models, which has been an important part and motivation during my education. My bachelor supervisor Prof. Dorthe Ravnsbæk and Ph.D. supervisor Associate Prof. Kirsten Jensen are women that truly inspire me. The evident drive and enthusiasm they both expressed about their research at our first meetings, immediately convinced me of joining their groups. Throughout the years, this research enthusiasm has been passed on to me and become my main motivation that drives me in my research. An important part of being a mentor is also guiding students to eventually find the appropriate career. Thus, we have always talked openly about career options, the risks of choosing science and how you make the most of it. They have both played a defining role in where I am today and encouraged me to pursue a career in research.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?

Express your curiosity! I have been given so many opportunities by simply contacting people I admired or that could help me to pursue something I was interested in. As a result, I have never been disappointed by the experiences I have been given or the people that I have met. At first, this can be very overwhelming to do, but take the chance. The worst thing that can happen is a “no”, but then you just go in a different direction to achieve your goal. When you express your interest and excitement for something, people see it and this can open a completely new world. Quite early on, I showed my interest in going to synchrotron facilities, international schools and conferences alone. And every time, I was enriched by new knowledge, developing an international network and amazing experiences.