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Student Spotlight: Destiny Mathews gains insight into graduate research at UW-Madison

By: Brian Dunn August 25, 2023

Destiny Mathews

Destiny Mathews, a senior chemistry major at Austin Peay State University, spent her summer developing “greener” catalysts while researching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chemistry of Materials for Renewable Energy Program.

Mathews participated in UW-Madison’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, working independently in a lab that partners with painting and coatings company PPG Industries. She aimed to find less toxic catalysts to replace harmful tin-based catalysts currently used in polyurethane coatings.

“I worked like 40-plus hours a week, Monday through Friday, sometimes on weekends,” Mathews said, describing a schedule akin to a graduate student researcher.

She tested combinations of titanium and other compounds as catalysts for a model polyurethane synthesis reaction. She found that a certain titanium mix provided the fastest and longest-lasting activity in water by systematically measuring the reaction speed (reactivity) and how well the catalyst mixtures-maintained activity when exposed to water (resistance to deactivation).

The research required long days for Mathews.

“For eight hours, I was right there, standing in front of the hood,” she said, describing monitoring the reaction’s progress.

Destiny Mathews

‘Opened my eyes to the possibilities’

While Mathews’ project focused explicitly on coatings chemistry, it ties into broader efforts to develop safer, sustainable products.

“It’s all about moving away from toxic things we use now (in industry),” she said.

Attending group meetings and interacting with industry representatives gave Mathews insight into collaborative research. She initially saw graduate school as limited to a couple of universities but says the experience “really opened my eyes to the possibilities.”

Mathews hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry and work on renewable energy solutions.

“I think renewable energies are interesting,” she said.

She advises other students to try to research topics outside their comfort zone. Mathews came in unfamiliar with catalysis but found herself engaged in the project.

“I would say another thing for people looking to do research, do something that you think you’re not interested in,” she said.

The intensive undergraduate research experience affirmed Mathews’ passion for chemistry and expanded her thinking about graduate school possibilities.

“It’s shown me where research can go,” she said.

Destiny Mathews

Building on research experiences

This isn’t Mathews’ first exposure to professional-level research. She is one of 18 Austin Peay College of STEM students spending several summer weeks in Europe, part of a three-year $300,000 International Research Experience for Students (IRES) grant from the National Science Foundation.

She attended the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic last summer and conducted research with fellow APSU student Peyton Simpson and APSU chemistry professor Dr. Carrie Brennan. Mathews presented that research in February at the state capitol in Nashville. Her poster was titled “Photo-Induced Structural Changes of Germanium-Based Thin Films.”

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