Today at Berkeley Lab

Early Career LDRD Spotlight: Peter Agbo Looks to Nature for Better Fuels

— By Theresa Duque

That Peter Agbo’s love for science and interest in the national labs started early in life is no surprise. His dad worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as an electrical engineer specializing in communications systems research, and his mom was a science teacher. But it wasn’t until he took “an amazing AP chemistry class” in high school that he knew he wanted to be a chemist, he said.

Today, Agbo is a researcher in the Chemical Sciences Division, and a project scientist/materials engineer at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Just three years after joining Berkeley Lab as a postdoc, he will be entering the next stage of his young career  —  leading a research team in the design of inorganic catalysts modeled after natural enzymes to efficiently convert carbon dioxide into fuels.

His work is being funded by an Early Career Laboratory Directed Research and Development Award, a new program launched last year to help young scientists further their research at the Lab, and to bring together a diverse group of scientists at a formative state in their careers.

In this Q&A, Agbo discusses the steps he took to get to Berkeley Lab, what he plans to work on under this LDRD, and advice for future scientists.

Q: How did you get into this field of science/research? Why did you want to do this type of scientific research at Berkeley Lab?

I knew that a career in research would be the right path for me after completing my Ph.D. I also knew that industrial R&D wouldn’t give me the latitude to do work in research, but that the national lab system would. And since I have family in the Bay Area, Berkeley Lab was the perfect choice.

So I joined the Lab three years ago as a postdoc in Rebecca Abergel’s lab in the Chemical Sciences Division. Rebecca’s group was a perfect fit for someone like me because she does a lot of work on lanthanide chemistry. Lanthanides are interesting because they exhibit a lot of unique photophysical traits, and one application I was interested in was the design of materials that could absorb light of particular wavelengths and efficiently re-emit them at different wavelengths so you can tune them to a desired frequency.

Q: What does winning this award mean to you? What will you be working on under your LDRD award?

My LDRD mostly has to do with the design of a good inorganic catalyst for converting CO2 into useful fuels. In particular, my work under this LDRD is focused on trying to take the design aspects of proteins that are very good at catalyzing CO2 transformations, and incorporating them into inorganic materials that would be part of a device dedicated to converting CO2 to hydrocarbon fuel.

Winning this LDRD is a great opportunity. It has allowed me to take on a high-risk project by giving me the resources and support to carry it out. It’s also giving me a chance to develop myself as a scientist who can independently lead a project.

Q: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I want to remain here because national labs are the perfect place to do independent research, and I’m interested in the science being done here at Berkeley Lab. Ultimately, I like the idea that Berkeley Lab is geared toward solving not just large problems but also doing science as service for the nation. If you look at big scientific advances, you can trace it to the national lab system – it’s a legacy I’m happy to make myself a part of.

Q: What advice do you have for others who are interested in a career in science?

Take time to develop your writing skills before going to graduate school. Writing is not emphasized enough for undergraduates majoring in science, and when you get to graduate school, you suddenly learn you have to communicate and write proposals. Quantitative skills are not enough to succeed as a scientist.

Read LDRD Early Career spotlights on Anna Spurlock and Carolin Sutter-Fella.