Although you may not always notice her, Jessica Luu ’24 is everywhere. She leads scientific communities as a club officer for the University’s student chapter of the American Chemical Society, co-president of the Wesleyan Astronomy Club (WesAstro), and house manager for Science House. A Goldwater Scholar and nanoparticle researcher, Luu majors in chemistry, Environmental Studies, and the College of Integrative Sciences. Beyond the sciences, we interrogated Luu about her short-lived stint on the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), secretive work as a co-chair of the Community Standards Board (CSB) and former Eco Facilitator, and atrocious attendance as a copy editor for The Argus. She sat with The Argus outside Pi Café shortly before Halloween to talk about her research, ResLife, and quitting.
The Argus: Could you tell us about your research in general terms?
Jessica Luu: The motivation behind my research is understanding the materials used in solar cells so we can improve the efficiency of our solar cells, for climate change and energy transition reasons. My research focuses on the conductivity of gold nanoparticles using terahertz time-domain spectroscopy. It’s important to understand how electrons behave within materials like gold nanorods because those are frequently used for solar cell applications.
A: Could you tell us about how your first research experiences have led to this one?
JL: The summer after my freshman year, I did research with [former Associate Professor of Chemistry] Michelle Personick. She does nanomaterial synthesis for catalysis. I learned some techniques for how to synthesize nanoparticles. I went to Rice University the following summer and did research in Professor Naomi Hollis’ lab, where she also does nanomaterial synthesis. She mostly uses aluminum. There, I learned some more techniques.
I came back here, and I wanted to expand my skill set beyond chemistry. Hollis is also a physicist and an electrical engineer. She has a lot of titles. Science is not as sectioned off as it seems. So, I was like, let me start this new project with [Assistant Professor of Physics and Environmental Studies Meng-ju Renee] Sher, where I used my nanomaterials synthesis skills and learned some spectroscopy techniques and understanding of the physics behind my materials from her laser lab.
A: How do you feel that research at Wesleyan compares to research at other universities?
JL: I mean, we’re a small liberal arts college. We don’t have the same resources as an R1 [university at the top level of U.S. government funding for research]. But I think it’s probably the best place for an undergrad to start research. At an R1, the very best undergrads get into research labs, as opposed to anyone who wants to be involved.
A: Do you have any tips for students who want to get involved in research?
JL: Browsing your department’s website, looking at faculty, and maybe reading up on what they’re doing. If you think you would want to be involved in their research, you just have to email them. Cold-emailing works pretty well on this small campus.
A: Do you have a summary of why your research is important, for someone who knows absolutely nothing about chemistry?
JL: Understanding how structure influences the chemistry and physics of materials is really important. For my research specifically, there’s not really much research out there that looks at the conductivity of metals like gold, specifically on the nanoscale, because we just assumed they’re really conductive. We haven’t really investigated how shape or size [of particles] actually influences conductivity or conductivity-related properties. So it is a lot of probing. It’s a fundamental science, and then figuring out what that can be used for in the real world.
A: Do you have a favorite chemical reaction or favorite chemical?
A: Or least favorite?
JL: CTAB [cetyltrimethylammonium bromide]. There are a lot of issues with syntheses that use CTAB. CTAB has some sort of contaminant or inconsistency in the way it’s produced, which makes it really difficult to synthesize nanoparticles consistently. Nanoparticle synthesis is really dependent on really small factors, like the quality of the materials you’re using.
A: How do you think chemistry can intersect with environmental studies, and do you have any thoughts on how your majors overlap in general?
JL: Chemistry is behind everything environmental. The nitrogen fixation cycle is one really important process that happens in the environment.
[In terms of majors,] chemistry is kind of the hard science. Environmental Studies has some intersections with chemistry; I wanted to learn more about the social issues and societal implications of my research. Then, the College of Integrative Sciences—as I said before, all of science can be interdisciplinary. It’s a lot stronger when you have a background in multiple sciences, so you fully understand what you’re doing.
A: Do you have a favorite biome?
JL: Probably just a deciduous forest. I like trees. I evaluate universities based on how many trees they have. Rice has a lot of trees—but on their campus, is the thing. They plant the trees on the campus, and I go into Houston, and there are not many trees.
A: How is Wesleyan for trees?
JL: It has a lot of trees. Even though it’s a city, it’s more of a suburb. Very good on the tree meter.
A: Exley or Hall-Atwater?
JL: Neither. Science House.
A: That’s a great segue. How long have you lived at Science House?
JL: I lived in Science House as a sophomore, but last year I became the house manager of Dacha, formerly known as Russian House. This year I returned to be the house manager of Science House.
A: Do you have a favorite activity that you planned?
JL: We did a science trivia night. A couple of residents were like, “Let’s do a Jeopardy.” We advertised it to the greater community. We had about 25 people show up. It was based on a lot of random science facts that I learned a lot from. I didn’t know that cheetahs are really genetically similar [to each other].
A: Are you still an Eco Facilitator?
JL: No. I ended up starting the Cotton Coat Project after I was an Eco Facilitator.
A: Do you want to tell us what that is?
JL: The intro chemistry and intro bio labs were using these polymer lab coats. Also orgo [organic chemistry] lab. We just discard them at the end of the semester. That is a lot of waste. So I wanted to find funding for cotton lab coats, which could be used for a couple of years because you could wash them. I applied to the Green Fund and got funding—almost $12,000 over the course of two years. And we were able to get some cotton lab coats.
A: What’s been your experience being on the CSB? I don’t know if you can even talk about it.
JL: I can talk about it generally. I think it’s a really important role to have on campus, and I don’t really know how much else you could say.
A: This is a question from when Andrew Lu ’23 and I were interviewing you about your appointment to the CSB in spring 2022: Do snitches get stitches? Can you answer that?
JL: I mean, I hope they don’t.
A: Follow up on a typo I made: Do stitches get snitches?
JL: I don’t know. No comment.
A: What happened with the WSA?
JL: Oh God. I realized, you know, Sunday evenings are a big time commitment, especially for grad school application season. I realized I don’t have the amount of time necessary to promote change on this campus in an effective manner.
Michael Quinteros [’24 and I] wanted to follow in Andrew Lu and Aidan Jones’s [’23] footsteps, these previous senators. They did some good work and we wanted to help, but then we realized it was unrealistic given our commitments to other things during our senior year.
A: Well, talking about your tendency to quit things, weren’t you a copy editor for The Argus? Although, in another way, you didn’t really quit if you’re still on the email list, so you’re just a really, really poor attendance copy editor. Do you ever read the emails?
JL: The last one was like copy, copy, copy, copy, copy, copy, copy, copy. It was funny enough that it caught my attention. I was just like, “Oh, they’re at it again.”
A: We can move away from things you quit now.
JL: I mean, it’s important to know when you have to quit something. I was just having such a hard time quitting the WSA, ’cause I was just like, “Ah, I signed up. Now I’m backing out.” But you have to know what your priorities are.
A: That’s good advice. Do you have any tips for figuring out what your priorities are?
JL: I feel a lot of what I do is kind of career-oriented, or something that will benefit me in the next five years. So that’s what I tend to prioritize. I guess for people who don’t really know what they wanna do in the next five years, maybe prioritize something that you know that you enjoy and that will have a greater impact on yourself and others.
A: What has it been like being involved in WesAstro?
JL: It’s been pretty fun. We haven’t had our first meeting yet this semester, but we’re working on it. WesAstro mainly does lecture series, like student-led lectures on topics people are interested in. Sometimes we discuss other students’ research in astronomy and physics.
Last year we built a Lego Saturn V [rocket], which is a pretty big event, and now that Lego [model] is situated in the basement of Van Vleck Observatory. We hosted Astro Jeopardy last spring and then we hosted the 1.5th annual astro jeopardy for KNAC [Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium] this year.
A: I’m just kind of disturbed by the half in 1.5th.
JL: Because it was only half a year away, so it wasn’t really the second.
A: What is it like being the financial manager for WesAstro?
JL: You learn how to get money from the SBC [WSA Student Budget Committee]. I think it’s fun. I like writing grant proposals, which is a skill I definitely need for the future. It’s nice to see other people approving [requests] and being like, “Yes, this is a good idea.”
A: Do you have a favorite activity that you’ve planned for WesAstro?
JL: It probably would be the Saturn V because that was the most successful pre-planned event.[Long pause.] We also got the Astronomy Department a food dehydrator.
A: Oh…. Wait, why?
JL: Bananas and apples. We were trying to do an astronaut food event based on dehydrating food. We looked at dehydrating food as a method of preserving food because astronauts eat freeze-dried food in space.
A: What would you like to dehydrate in the future?
JL: The dehydrator came with a booklet of things to dehydrate, and I think a lot of it was meat products, which is kind of interesting, but it’s a little scary. But that’s something I would want to try.
A: You know, I think we’re aligned on that because my first thought when Anne [Kiely ’24] asked that was humans. So, you know, that’s just kind of another kind of meat. I’m just going to ask something random. What’s your favorite astronomy pun?
JL: Shoot. That requires me to have knowledge of puns in my head.
A: And you don’t?
JL: I don’t. I’m sorry.
A: That’s really disappointing, Jessica. Do you have at least a chemistry pun?
JL: No. I don’t know. I have this booklet of puns I got from an expo at a meeting. I don’t have it on me. They were not that funny, but they were not funny enough that they were funny.
I feel like you have a bunch of out-of-pocket questions.
A: You wear a lot of black.
JL: It just matches with everything.
A: It wasn’t a question. You have a black water bottle right now. You have black glasses, a black jacket, a faded black shirt. I think you have a black pin in your hair. You have dark blue jeans, but they’re not that far away from black. And then you have black shoes.
JL: Oh man. I feel attacked. I have a black backpack too.
A: So, do you think just black goes well with everything in general? Like all colors? Or does black just go well with all your clothes because you only wear black?
JL: I think the latter.
A: The last time we [Anne and Elias Mansell ’24] interviewed a WesCeleb she was dressed in all pink. So it’s really a theme. You’re really a strong contrast with Neff.
JL: I’m depressed. Yesterday, I was a black cat for Halloween.
A: That makes so much sense. That really fits you.
JL: It’s ’cause I didn’t have a costume and I had the cat ears I bought two years ago. That was really it.
A: Tell us about your relationship with chairs, as in the piece of furniture.
JL: Well, you know, I had a friend called Maya [Durden ’23]. She was my freshman roommate in Butts A and she graduated last year, a year early, and now she’s at NYU for her master’s in teaching. There was one day—it was you [Elias], me, Jamar [Kittling ’24], and I don’t remember who else—we were in the DFC [Daniel Family Commons] and we were like, “Haha, wouldn’t it be so funny if we just sent a photo of chairs to Maya,” because she wasn’t there, and then we just started sending photos of chairs to her from random friends’ numbers.
A: She didn’t have all the numbers.
JL: Yeah, she got really upset. There’s this orange Subaru on campus. There used to be multiple. I think there’s only one [now], which is a Middletown resident’s orange Subaru. So, now it evolved into me taking photos of that orange Subaru every time I see it and sending it to Maya. She also sends me orange Subarus back. I feel like I’m a menace because I’m just stalking this person.
A: Is there a relationship between the orange Subaru and the chair?
JL: There was an orange chair on Harvard’s campus that I sent to Maya, but I don’t really know why I started sending orange Subarus to Maya.
A: My favorite one was sending a photo—I don’t remember who did it—but sending a photo of Karen Collins to Maya because she [was] chair of the Math[ematics and Computer Science] Department.
JL: Yeah, it’s been a while since I sent her a chair though.
A: You’ve got a lot of options here outside Pi.
JL: Those are boring.
A: What makes a good chair?
JL: Something that’s not easily accessible or visible. It has to be hidden somewhere, so [Maya] doesn’t know where it is.
I sit in that chair in Sci Li [Exley Science Library] at the Macs and do my work all the time. So that’s my favorite chair in terms of utility. I don’t really have a favorite-looking chair. They all look like chairs. I don’t know if I should be like, oh yes, these chairs I saw in a museum that were elaborate-looking but not functional. They just were modern art pieces that did not look comfortable at all. So they were just art. They were not chairs, I would say, at that point.
Oh, we were also gonna steal a chair from Usdan and put it in her room in Full House [while she was asleep]. She lived in Full House.
A: Yeah, we [Jessica and Elias] didn’t know how to break into Full House. I forgot about that. I’m pretty sure at one point though, we got pretty close. I think we had a plan to ask someone to let us in. It was the middle of the night. It was really cold. But we were even walking around Usdan and circling it [to take a chair] and PSafe showed up and then we got freaked out.
JL: We had a chair-stealing plan. I wrote on my notes app.
A: Does the CSB prosecute for attempted chair stealing?
JL: We don’t have anything for that because I feel like that’s more preemptive. A premeditated crime is more of a federal crime, not on the conduct board for students here.
A: Are you saying this is worse?
JL: Probably, yeah. I mean, it’s just a chair.
A: You’re saying that attempted chair stealing should be a federal crime.
A: Maybe Usdan really chair-ishes its chairs. See, I had a pun. Now where’s yours?
JL: I don’t have any, man.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anne Kiely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elias Mansell can be reached at email@example.com.