Originally from Nigeria, Shuaib has known all his life that he wanted to do something chemistry-related. It took a while, though, to find the right chemical niche. Chemical engineering looked right at first, then he explored industrial chemistry and then materials chemistry, earning a master’s degree from the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia. Now in his fifth year of Ph.D. studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he has found that niche in synthesizing and characterizing inorganic materials for industrial applications.
Shuaib designs metal-oxide clusters, which are relatively large molecules whose structures often can’t be determined by using standard lab resources. This is a problem when he is trying to tailor a structure to an application. “To understand what our materials are good for, we need to understand the structures down to the molecular or atomic level, because we believe different atoms have different behavior in different applications. The best way to see atomic connectivity is X-ray crystallography, and ChemMatCARS is known to be the best that one can get in the world.”
He speaks from prior experience: For a previous visit as a regular APS user, he brought a compound that his supervisor had given up on because they couldn’t get adequate structural data. The very first data set collected at ChemMatCARS resulted in a publishable structure.
Although he wasn’t a synchrotron novice, Shuaib said the GSRAC experience has given him autonomy and confidence. “Sometimes when you have a state-of-the-art facility like this, people don’t let you lay your hands on it because of the fear that you will damage something. But here it is different; they give you the confidence to be able to handle and operate things yourself. The scientists are so ready to help you, any time of the day. Before, when you look at how gigantic, how complex everything looks, you think this is something you can never do yourself. Today, I have the feeling that I can handle this myself. I can go from beginning to the end, collect data and solve structures, without having to involve anyone,” he said.
The opportunity to talk with research groups from many countries and disciplines also made a deep impression and might change the direction of Shuaib’s research. “One thing I have never witnessed before is being able to do an in situ characterization,” he said, recounting an experiment to monitor adsorption of CO2. “You could see the gas getting adsorbed on the structure. That is quite fascinating. I never knew that you could do that here. I also have materials where I could use that way of seeing the reactions, which I’m thinking of as a direction in the near future. That wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been here to witness other users doing different things than what I’m doing.”
Shuaib’s advice to future applicants? “You’re never alone, and the opportunity and the experience is endless. It’s going to open your eyes to what you never thought was possible.”
* The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.