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DOE Early Career Award Goes to Nuclear Energy Elements Researcher

January 7, 2019 Chemistry professor Karah Knope, who researches elements essential to nuclear energy, is one of 84 scientists at universities and national laboratories receiving an Early Career Award from the U.S. Department of Energy. The award honors outstanding tenure-track researchers who received their Ph.D.s within the last 10 years and comes with a $150,000 grant each year for five years to cover salary and research expenses.

Karah knope stands in her lab dressed in a white coat and goggles.Research: A heavy elements specialist, Knope researches a group of radioactive elements whose properties are key to nuclear energy. These elements – including thorium, uranium, neptunium and plutonium – can form different complexes in different environments.

Knope’s chemistry lab attempts to mimic the complexes that form under conditions found in nuclear waste management and in separations and environmental systems.

“At a fundamental level, we’re trying to understand the types of complexes that form and how they transform under a given set of conditions,” says Knope, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry. “From that knowledge, you can better predict how the metal will behave environmentally.”

Partnerships: Knope focuses on an often overlooked variation of the heavy metals known as the tetravalent oxidation state, teaming up with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“The partnership will allow us to also study plutonium and neptunium chemistry, which tends to be underrepresented,” she adds.

Before Georgetown: Knope began her career as a chemist at Lake Forest College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After receiving her Ph.D. from The George Washington University, she spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow and then two more as a junior chemist at Argonne National Laboratory.

Rows of vials sit in a tray marked "Caution Radioactive Material." Knope says her time at Argonne provided the opportunity to conduct meaningful chemical research, but she missed higher education.

“What brought me to Georgetown was the ability to do cutting-edge research but also mentor students,” Knope says. “Here, I get the best of both worlds.”

Benefit to students: Knope says the grant will help fund graduate student research in her lab.

“These students will be able to focus on their research projects, which is good for their development as scientists,” Knope says. “They also will have the opportunity to study more highly radioactive elements at national laboratories.”