Danielle Getz tackles a grand challenge

August 29, 2022

Danielle Getz working in the Porosoff lab.

Danielle Getz says she had a "fantastic" time doing research this summer in the lab of Marc Porosoff, assistant professor of chemical engineering. “I’m really motivated when I have awesome people I am working with, who are passionate and excited – that’s what I love about the University of Rochester,” she says.

Lab experience as Grand Challenges Scholar prepares her to battle climate change 

Danielle Getz ’23 decided in high school that she wanted to dedicate herself to mitigating climate change.

At the University of Rochester this summer she’s been working in the research group of Marc Porosoff on cutting edge research aimed at addressing the problem.

Danielle Getz portraitThe chemical engineering major and Grand Challenges Scholar (see more at bottom) is designing and tuning a tungsten-carbide based catalyst that could be used to convert carbon dioxide-- one of the four major “greenhouse gases”--into carbon monoxide. She’s also exploring whether the addition of transition metal promoters to the reaction pathway could result in methane, methanol, or other heavier hydrocarbon outputs that could become useful products.

“A lot of what I’m studying is the mechanistic pathway so that other people can design really good catalysts,” Getz says. She is excited to be working with a graduate student to have her findings published in research journal and, as an Eisenberg Summer Research Fellow, Getz will also present her results at a symposium this fall.

Porosoff, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, says he’s impressed with Getz’s progress this summer. Getz has excelled during her first opportunity to devote full time to research.

“She’s been doing a lot of infrared spectroscopy—not an easy technique to interpret—but she’s been digging through the weeds, learning what the data tells us about the mechanism of absorption and reaction,” Porosoff says. “Danielle is an outstanding student, and we’re lucky to have her in the lab.”

Drawn to UR’s research, sense of community

Getz is from nearby Penfield, a Rochester suburb. As a child, she loved being outdoors. “I loved gardening; I collected bugs. I was one of those kids,” she laughs.

Not until high school, however, did a succession of interests lead her to science and engineering. “I actually cared about writing first, which brought me into Model United Nations, and that’s when I learned a lot about climate change,” Getz says. “I was really excited about all the different things that people were working on to mitigate climate change and it effects, and I decided that was what I wanted to do.”

She initially considered enrolling in the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, but instead chose Rochester, where her parents met as first-generation students and got their degrees. 

“I was really excited about the research opportunities, and I just loved the University community. I really felt at home whenever I was on campus, meeting people. I knew I would do well here,” Getz says.

“I’m really motivated when I have awesome people I am working with, who are passionate and excited – that’s what I love about the University of Rochester.”

‘More opportunities than I ever expected’

Getz initially intended to major in environmental science but switched to chemical engineering her first week. “I love my major,” she says. “I feel like I know everybody in my classes, and I’ve had a fantastic time in Porosoff’s lab.”

She became interested in the Grand Challenges Scholars program after director Emma Derisi and Joshua Batres ’22, a GCS student, gave a presentation in one of Getz’s first-year classes.

“I talked to Joshua afterwards, and got really excited about the program,” Getz says. “It seemed like a good way to structure the undergraduate experiences and opportunities I wanted to take advantage of, and to network with other students who were ambitious about the same opportunities.

“It’s given me a lot more opportunities than I ever expected, like the (GCS-funded) research position this summer.

Getz has also skillfully complemented her engineering major with a minor in environmental humanities.

"My humanities classes at the University of Rochester have been some of my favorites!" she says.

For example, a course on decolonizing food with Leila Nadir, associate professor of environmental humanities and the founding director of the University's Environmental Humanities Program, was "particularly impactful," Getz says. "We dived deep into how our organized systems—typically 'engineered'—can propagate inequalities when we aren’t in tune with humanitarian principles."

A philosophy course discussed the ethics of environmental degradation as well as what “nature” even means, Getz says.

And an anthropology course on culture and consumption taught by Robert Foster, professor of anthropology and visual and cultural studies,"really engaged me in looking into the systems and people behind every day experiences and items such as milk," she says.

"These courses have made me a more intentional and considerate engineer," Getz says. They also will help her understand the problem of mitigating climate change and other environmental issues "from different angles, and consider the people affected and not just the science." 

The high grades she has maintained entitled Getz to receive the Wells Award, given to students in the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who also excel in the humanities.

She’s also active in the student Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter, helping organize once-a-semester day-long STEM workshops for Girl Scouts still in elementary school. “It’s a lot of fun,” Getz says. SWE is working with another student chapter to include underrepresented minority Rochester City School District students in the workshops.

An internship last summer with Amphenol Aerospace included analyzing industrial waste water and developing and analyzing cadmium, nickel, copper, tin and zinc plating baths. This gave Getz first-hand experience in an industrial lab handling hazardous materials.

An advocate of the workshop learning model

Getz says she has especially enjoyed serving as a workshop leader and teaching assistant for undergraduate courses in introductory chemistry, chemical process analysis, and numerical methods and statistics. She has become a passionate advocate for incorporating a workshop learning model used in physics, optics and computer science into more engineering courses as well.

Traditionally, TA’s do most of the talking in the small-group, problem-solving recitation sessions they conduct to be sure students understand the material introduced in classroom lectures. “TA’s put the problems on the board, students take notes, and then the brave ones might raise their hands to ask questions,” Getz says.

“In the workshop model, everyone has to participate in some capacity. The TA is no longer the one writing out the solutions but is guiding the students in figuring out how to work together to solve the problems themselves.” 

A career in academia beckons

The teaching and leadership skills that Goetz has been honing at UR could serve her well in either industry or academia.

 At least for now, her heart is set on academia.  

After graduation she plans to pursue a PhD, apply for a professorship, “have my own lab, study what I’m curious about, and lead a good team of students.”

But she’s not ruling out “whatever opportunities come my way,” Getz says.

Whatever the pathway, she’s eager to join the ranks of the people she learned about in high school who are trying to mitigate the effects of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

“I want to have a meaningful impact.”

About the Grand Challenges Scholars

Collage of grand challenges scholars

This is the first year the University’s Grand Challenges Scholars program has funded a summer research position for one of its student participants.

The program encourages undergraduates to choose one of 14 global challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering, and tailor their academic program to address the problem by demonstrating competencies in research, interdisciplinary study, entrepreneurship and innovation, global perspectives, and service.

In previous years, the program funded summer positions that helped students meet the entrepreneurship and innovation competency, says program director Emma Derisi, the coordinator for undergraduate global initiatives for the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. That enabled Joshua Batres ‘22 to attend a summer entrepreneurial program at Arizona State University, all expenses paid.

This year, Derisi decided to shift the focus to a different competency—research—by funding the summer position that enabled Danielle Getz to work in Marc Porosoff’s lab.

Derisi plans to fund a summer research position for Grand Challenges Scholars at least one more year. “I want to follow the lead of students. If students are interested in it and they’re using it, and its viable for professors, then we’ll keep going.”

Learn more about other students’ experiences as Grand Challenges Scholars.