The Chicago chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) granted
its third annual Innovator Award to Tijana Rajh, group leader of the Nanobio
Interfaces research group at Argonne
National Laboratory's Centre for Nanoscale Materials. The award honours
contributions to science in the Chicagoland area. Rajh received the award for
her work studying semiconductor nanoparticles, a field with applications from
solar power to cancer research.
Rajh cites Marion Thurnauer, a longtime Argonne scientist and former director
of the Chemistry Division, as her mentor. 'At the time she was hired at Argonne,
and for the next eight years, she was the only female Ph.D. staff member of
Argonne's Chemistry Division,' Rajh said. 'That experience prompted her to encourage
broader searches for women to be represented in the Argonne job candidate pool.'
Rajh herself grew up in Yugoslavia, where, she says, it was more common for
women to have careers in science. A friend of her mother's brought Rajh to visit
her workplace, a scientific institution much like Argonne. 'I fell in love with
it,' Rajh said. 'There was absolutely no question what I was going to do with
my life. And then when I came here,' she added, smiling, 'I was hooked.'
While finishing her undergraduate physical chemistry degree at the University
of Belgrade, a professor invited her to join a research project attempting to
split water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules for fuel purposes. She didn't
know it, but it was the jumping-off point for a long career studying semiconductor
nanoparticles - tiny particles made from materials which form the heart of modern
electronics. Their photoactivity and stability is exactly what makes them good
for many uses, from pollutant cleanup to medical imaging.
Rajh and the research team noticed that the particles of the same chemical
composition appeared in different colours as researchers shrunk them smaller
and smaller. Nanoparticles can change colour, and other characteristics, with
size: a quirk useful for many applications. 'When you see it for the first time,
it's so amazing,' Rajh said. Together with her advisor Olga Micic and collaborator
Art Nozik at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, she authored one of the
first three papers ever written about colloidal quantum dots (1985).
Thurnauer recruited Rajh in 1994, where she began studying how to use nanoparticles
in a variety of applications: to remove heavy metal pollutants from the environment,
write data to nanocircuits in computers, and link nanoparticles with biological
For example, Rajh works with particles made of the semiconductor titanium dioxide
(TiO2), which is white. When combined with organic compounds such as vitamin
C or dopamine, which are also white, nanoparticles turn a brilliant red - indicating
that the two materials are interacting at the molecular level. This discovery
allowed her and her team to electronically link TiO2 particles with DNA and
other biological molecules, opening a whole new dimension of possibilities.
One of the team members, Elena Rozhkova, is working to apply the particles to
cancer treatment. 'She marks glioma cancer cells with TiO2 particles,' Rajh
explained, 'and doctors could use light of a certain energy to destroy only
those marked cells, leaving healthy brain cells intact.'
At the core, though, Rajh loves basic science the best. 'I love research, it's
so cool,' she said. 'It's like a puzzle. There's a problem, and you look at
it and start making connections, and very slowly the whole picture opens up.'
Rajh received her Ph.D. in 1986 from the University of Belgrade in Yugoslavia.
Prior to working at CNM, she joined Argonne's Chemistry Division in 1996 and
has been a prolific researcher, co-authoring six papers in 2008 alone.
She is the third scientist to be recognised by the Association for Women in
Science Chicago Area Chapter, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to advancing
women in the field of science. The group formed in 1971 and has since expanded
nationwide. Chapters advocate for women in all scientific fields, publicise
women's achievements, and hold educational workshops for students. The Innovator
Award recognises achievements in science in the Chicagoland area.