Research News

Rosenthal awarded Herty Medal for achievements in chemistry, STEM education

portrait in lab
Sandra Rosenthal (Vanderbilt University)

Sandra Rosenthal, the Jack and Pamela Egan Professor of Chemistry and director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, has been named the winner of this year’s Charles H. Herty Medal by the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society. The award is given to recognize outstanding chemists in the Southeast U.S. who have made significant contributions to their field.

Rosenthal is being recognized for her development of nanocrystal probes for neuroscience and white-light emitting nanocrystals as well as her contributions to improving STEM education across Tennessee.

Scientific achievements

In order to help neuroscientists better understand how the neurotransmitter serotonin is regulated, Rosenthal developed a fluorescent nanocrystal “tag” that could be attached to a protein molecule that governs serotonin’s movement through the brain. By watching that tag, the researchers were able to identify two different signaling pathways that determined whether serotonin floated freely or anchored to a cell. This could enable scientists studying mental health and brain disorders related to serotonin regulation, such as depression or bipolar disorder, develop more precise target therapies.

The committee also highlighted Rosenthal’s research into white-light emitting nanocrystals, or quantum dots, which could provide the lighting of the future. When tiny fluorescent beads of cadmium selenide are illuminated by an LED, they emit the kind of soft, warm white light that feels most natural to our eyes. In more recent years, Rosenthal has been able to boost their lighting efficiency enough to make them bright enough to compare to some specialty commercial lighting applications, and last year headed a team that developed a way to use them to build more precise lasers. This technology has gone on to inform other research at Vanderbilt as well, most recently in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Rosenthal also was the first to figure out how to correlate the atomic structure of a single nanocrystal to its photophysics, advancing science’s understanding of how quantum dots actually work.

Science outreach

Rosenthal was instrumental in helping to secure the $20 million NSF grant that supports the TN-SCORE program, which seeks to improve STEM education in Tennessee. As part of that effort, VINSE hosts field trips for Middle Tennessee high schoolers to learn about nanotechnology through an experiment that challenges them to use blackberry juice to develop solar cells.

Rosenthal is the second Vanderbilt chemist to win the award since its inception in 1933; Stanley Tarbell won it in 1973.

“I didn’t hesitate when asked to join the leadership team for TN-SCORE. Vanderbilt is my home, which makes Tennessee my home, so it is natural to want to help the state,” said Rosenthal. “You do things because they are the right thing to do, not for awards or recognition. But recognition in the form of the Herty Medal is very satisfying.”