Driven to Achieve

Shelby Stavretis

Shelby Stavretis is feeling lucky! She spent two weeks last summer attending the National School on Neutron and X-Ray Scattering working with top scientists at two national research laboratories. Such an experience was a rare opportunity, especially for a first year graduate student.

Shelby was one of sixty-five graduate students selected for the school as part of nationwide competition. The school is a Department of Energy program and only selected students in physics, chemistry, materials science, or related fields across the country. The main purpose of the school is to educate graduate students, the next generation of scientists, on the utilization of major neutron and x-ray facilities.

Shelby said learning the physics and engineering behind neutron science combined with her knowledge of chemistry to give her a broader understanding of the field. She spent the first week of June at Argonne National Laboratory and the second week at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) learning about neutron scattering science and the use of sophisticated instruments used in the research.

Shelby worked several beam line experiments under the direction of scientists and said it was exciting to have hands on experience with the sophisticated instrumentation at Argonne and ORNL so early in her graduate career. “I will employ the techniques and analysis tools I learned from these experiences in both my current graduate research and future research endeavors.”

Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Shelby became interested in science in high school and went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Butler University. Positive research experiences at Butler inspired her to continue her studies in graduate school. After considering graduate programs in chemistry around the country, Shelby applied to UT because of its close proximity to ORNL. She was invited to the Graduate Orientation Weekend hosted by the Department of Chemistry and interviewed seven faculty before making the decision to work with Ben Xue.

“I chose to work with Professor Xue for several reasons. His research is in my interest area and he is engaged in neutron scattering research at ORNL; I knew that working with him would afford me opportunities to be involved there as well. He was friendly, approachable, and had a reputation for close engagement with his students. But the most important factor was that I could see that he was driven, like me. I sensed that he could and would help me advance my career.”

Other students seek out Xue as a mentor as well. At any time he may have more than a dozen students in his laboratory with wide-ranging experience and ability—beginning and advanced doctoral students, undergraduates, and some high school students who are Upward Bound program participants. What is his approach to mentoring?

“I seek to provide students with stimulating and challenging projects to foster curiosity. When they become curious, they become self-motivated,” Xue explains. “I’ve been fortunate to attract funding for a three-pronged research program that offers students opportunities and choices based on their interest. I strive to provide students with the excellent research opportunities that they expect at a flagship public research university, drawing on collaborators on campus as well as scientists in the United States and other countries.”

He definitely takes an active role in seeking opportunities to advance his students’ current research and their future careers. “I try to get them to the frontier of the research in teaching, at the national laboratories, and in industry,” he said.

This past fall Shelby completed the last three classes of her coursework and served as a teaching assistant for a graduate class during fall semester. Currently she is student operator for the Powder X-ray Diffractometer (PXRD) and the Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometer (ICP-OES) in the chemistry department. She also passed her candidacy exam this year and has been accepted officially as a doctoral degree candidate in the department.

Shelby is engaged in research focused on the determination of the zero-field splitting parameters of metalloporphyrins by Inelastic Neutron Scattering (INS). Xue’s group is using the Cold Neutron Chopper Spectrometer at the Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL.

According to Xue, Shelby’s research has probed an intrinsic magnetic property of paramagnetic compounds using the unique technique of neutron scattering. Although the intrinsic magnetic property she studies, zero-field splitting, has been known for some time, Shelby is studying this property using a unique technique to the field of molecular magnetism, neutron scattering.

“Her research studying molecular magnetic properties has the potential to be used as the next generation of electronic storage materials used in cell phones, computers, and automobile control panels,” Xue said. “Now we use solid state materials, but her work could dramatically increase electronic storage capacity—perhaps leading to storing data in a single molecule.”

Shelby is satisfied with her decision to pursue graduate studies in chemistry at UT. She has had the support she expected from Professor Xue and other faculty in the department. “The student culture in the department is also positive,” she said. “My fellow students are collaborative and helpful and that’s important.”

She also enjoys living in Knoxville where the winters are milder than in Indiana. A hiker, Shelby also appreciates being near the Smoky Mountains and all of the recreational and cultural opportunities in the greater Knoxville area to enjoy as her schedule permits.

Following degree completion, Shelby is interested in a career in industry or at one of the national laboratories. She explained, “I enjoy the applied side of science.”