The lure of exploring endless possibilities and the challenge of solving puzzles brought Bonnie Buss to the field of chemistry. She hopes this combination will also inspire and engage her students, both in the classroom and in the lab, when she takes up her new role as an assistant professor in UNC’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry this fall.
“We have the periodic table, which is relatively limited in the number of elements, but you can combine them and work with them in an infinite number of ways,” Buss said. “It’s actually pretty easy to come into a lab and do something that nobody’s ever done, to be an inventor. Then there is the mystery side. You have all this information and you need to figure out how to solve a problem or what questions to ask. Chemistry isn’t just about being smart, it’s about solving puzzles.”
Buss, who received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Arkansas and her Ph.D. in Materials Chemistry from Colorado State University, has spent much of her career in the laboratory, most recently as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Her research focuses on sustainability and applies her skills and knowledge to solve the very real puzzle of how to reduce plastic waste and pollution.
“The idea of sustainability is a pretty big focus in the academic chemistry community,” said Buss. “In this area there is a lot of government funding and politics and motivation to solve these types of problems from all sorts of angles. My particular take on this topic is the possibility of using light to either make plastics in a very sustainable way, or to break down the plastics we already have into useful materials.”
According to Buss, while the research she conducts isn’t entirely unique, it has the potential to stand out in the industry.
“Compared to some academic groups, there is definitely an economic motivation behind my research,” said Buss. “We try to develop things that result in high-quality products. So when we come across a really solid approach, people have an economic incentive to embrace it. There are many ways to do everything, but if it’s really expensive, no one will do it.”
Hoping to share her research with students, Buss actively recruits undergraduate and graduate students into her lab for hands-on research in photochemistry, plastics, and sustainability. She believes it will appeal to all levels of experience and disciplines and encourages interested students to contact her.
“The research we do here is really fun because we do all the chemistry with light, everything is very colourful,” Buss continues.
“It’s a type of research where we’re still using very basic ideas in chemistry, like talking about catalysts, things that can drive chemical reactions. But we’re going to use these in a very real world and applied approach,” adds Buss. “This research is something that is perfect for this environment, particularly in the context of engaging students and hopefully getting them to pursue careers in academia.”
Michael Mosher, Interim Faculty Chair, Professor of Chemistry and Manager of UNC’s Brewing Laboratory Science Program, is pleased to welcome Buss to the Faculty of Chemistry and Biochemistry and commends her research efforts in advancing the science of polymer and plastic sustainability.
“The outcomes of their studies will be of paramount importance to students in our program as they explore potential careers in chemistry,” said Mosher.
While Buss enjoys her work in the lab, she also enjoys the classroom and looks forward to working closely with students as an instructor and research advisor.
“Having people who can teach me and mentor me – that’s what drew me back to academia, the idea that I could work with students, help guide them and set them up for success, whatever their future might be like. I chose UNC in particular because of the emphasis on getting the student to do the right thing. It’s the combination of the teaching culture and the relatively smaller class sizes, while still maintaining the feel of a large university. I think it’s a pretty special place in that regard.”
Buss will be teaching general chemistry and organic chemistry this year. She is one of seven new faculty members at UNC’s College of Natural and Health Sciences this fall. She is joined by Charles Lenell, Audiology and Speech Language Sciences; Lindsay Green, Nursing Family/Emergency Nurse; Teresa Buckner, Nutrition and Dietetics; Dannon Cox, Public Health Community Health Education; Aryn Taylor, Rehabilitation Counseling and Science and Human Services; and Koo Yul Kim, Kinesiology Sports Administration.
— written by Deanna Herbert