Oct 21, 2015
Erick Harr
1st year graduate student Erick Harr (Tolbert Group) has been awarded a prestigious UC-MEXUS fellowship that will fund him throughout his graduate career.
 
The University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS) - Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (CONACYT) fellowships are awarded to students who show significant promise in the fields of interest to UC MEXUS and who strengthen the intellectual ties between Mexico and the United States.
 
In Prof. Sarah Tolbert's lab, Erick works on the synthesis of semiconducting nanoparticles made from non-toxic, earth abundant elements that could be used in a device for photo-assisted water splitting catalysis. He explains, “Water splitting is the general name for the chemical reaction which produces hydrogen and oxygen gas from water. "Photo-assisted" means that in the final device, the reaction will be driven by sunlight. As society begins the switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen, I believe that it will be technologies much like this one which will be at the forefront of the transition.”
 
An interest in using nanoparticles for energy production and storage was sparked for Erick during the time he spent at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) working on nanomedicine. He decided to apply the techniques he had learned to a different field.
 
“I made nanoparticles which could selectively target and kill cancerous cells. Although nanomedicine was interesting, I found myself constantly thinking about how I could apply the properties of nanoparticles to energy production. So when I applied to both graduate schools and fellowships I based my applications upon this interest. Prof. Tolbert is a leader in the field of self-assembled nanomaterials and after meeting her during my visitation weekend at UCLA I was convinced that she was the person I wanted to learn from during my graduate career.”
 
Erick discovered the opportunity thanks to his friend, another UC MEXUS CONACYT fellow, who suggested he would be a good candidate. Erick is very excited about the award. “Although I thought I had a shot at getting it, I didn't think that it would turn out to be such an incredible opportunity for me. I thank my friend every time I can for always supporting me with her ideas.”
 
Erick received his undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany). As an undergraduate he did computational chemistry in a molecular biology lab. “Basically, we took a specific section of a ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule called the anticodon stem loop” Erick said, “and we simulated its behavior in a fixed volume of water molecules. This helped us understand the conformational pathways (how the molecule's shape changes over time), the anticodon stem loop would follow when it bound to other biomolecules to do its biological business.”
 
When Erick was three, his family moved to Mexico City, where he grew up and attended high school. “My formative years were spent in Mexico and both my immediate and extended families on my mother's side reside there. “ Erick said. “My childhood was spent with my Mexican family celebrating the Day of the Dead and Mexico's Independence Day rather than Halloween and the fourth of July.” Erick left Mexico City at the age of 18 to study chemistry at SUNY Albany.
 
Photos by Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry