Nella M. Vargas-Barbosa

Independent Group Lead,
Helmholtz Institute Muenster


Pursue the aspects of science that you find interesting, even if others don't.

What do you do?

I am an electrochemist. My group focuses on utilizing and developing electrochemical methods to understand how electrons can be better utilized to store energy in the form of high energy density molecules (e.g. hydrogen gas), and how the movement of charged species (ions) is affected by the state-of-matter, density, microstructure, and concentration of ions. A good understanding of ionic transport is very relevant for the development of fast-charging batteries.

Why did you choose this field?

My first experience with electrochemistry was in the summer between 9th and 10th grade. I had been chosen to participate in a NASA-sponsored summer camp at the University of Puerto Rice. There I was assigned to the group of Prof. Carlos Cabrera and worked with a graduate student exploring the effect of metal substrates on the electrocatalytic activity of ceria-based catalysts for methanol fuel cells. From this experience I learned that electrochemistry is at the core of many day-to-day things like mobile phones/laptops (rechargeable batteries), fuel cell engines, anticorrosion coatings in spaceships, airplanes and cargo ships, (photo)electrochemical systems to generate high-value chemicals in a more environment-friendly manner (still in the research-phase, but very promising systems are out there). After learning about all the possibilities electrochemistry had to offer both within academic and industry-related research, I never turned back.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

This is a tough one. I do not regret anything about the path I chose to get to where I am. I suppose it would have been nice to know that as an undergraduate I would have been able to explore research opportunities outside of the US. My last five years I have done research in Europe and it has given me a completely new perspective to research. One that is less focused on solely competing for grant funds but rather is honing on ones knowledge about something specific. This might be perhaps a Germany-thing, but I don't regret having this opportunity.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM because I get paid to explore the world as my two year old daughter does. She walks in the park finds a small flower, and wants to bring it to me but squishes it with her hand and discovers that it is now deformed. The next flower she finds she holds more carefully and is so proud of herself when it survives the way to me. Similarly, I am able to think about how pressure and temperature affects the movement of ions in a solid electrolyte, and each day I get to explore different conditions that might optimize the transport and make these electrolytes more viable for market applications.

I wake up looking forward to the discussions with my students and colleagues. This is where I get to learn the most and am most productive. I believe good STEM research is based on excellent teamwork.

Best advice for next generation?

Pursue the aspects of science that you find interesting, even if others don't. This is where you will find most joy in your discoveries and perhaps find something that no one else had because nobody else was looking. Following your instincts is how you will stand out.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"Do not miss out on the view of the forest because you are focused on a single tree". This is a paraphrased translation that my psychologist once told me as a college student. I find myself reminding myself to take a step back and look at the big picture and not focus on specific (often annoying or disheartening) things, especially in the current pandemic. I am not sure if this (or something similar) corresponds to a specific person, so apologize in advance if missing the proper quote.

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