Make Like a Tree

Nature makes it look so easy. Sunlight and carbon dioxide go in, greenery grows, and oxygen comes out. For our contemporary society hooked on fossil fuels, deriving power from abundant, natural sources is an alluring idea. But how can humankind mimic nature? Caltech is committed to figuring it out.

Sonja Francis, a former Resnick Prize Postdoctoral Scholar, devoted her two and a half years at Caltech to unlocking this mystery under the supervision of Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry. The urgency of her scientific quest hit close to home—pollution from industrial processes poses a danger to living things both inland and off the coast of her native Trinidad and Tobago. With her colleagues at the Resnick Sustainability Institute and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, she combed through hundreds of catalysts with the potential to replicate this natural process. Her target proved elusive. Then one day, she saw the reaction she was looking for.

In this video, Francis—who moved on to become a lecturer at Princeton in fall 2016—talks about the motivation behind her investigations, her Caltech journey, and her bubbling breakthrough moment.

Giving Priorities