Share this:
06/12/2013 09:46:53

Senior Spotlight: Megan Jackson

A curious chemist searches for cleaner catalysts


Caltech's class of 2013 is a group of passionate, curious, and creative individuals who have spent their undergraduate years advancing research and challenging both conventional thinking and one another. They have thrived in a rigorous, unique academic environment, building the kinds of skills in both leadership and partnership that will support them as they pursue their biggest and best ideas.

Over the next few weeks, the stories of just a few of these remarkable graduates will be featured here. Watch as they and their peers are honored at Caltech's 119th commencement on June 14 at 10 a.m. If you can't be in Pasadena, the ceremony will be live-streamed at


While college graduation is traditionally a time to celebrate scholarly achievements and to toast future pursuits, for many it is also an occasion to reflect on how they arrived at this significant milestone. Caltech senior Megan Jackson, who will receive a chemistry degree on June 14, can trace her interest in science to a chemistry teacher in high school, who encouraged Jackson to design her own research.

"My chemistry teacher gave us an independent study assignment, and I decided that I wanted to do an experiment," she recalls. "So she sent me home with a stack of books and told me to come back with an idea."

Jackson's project, which involved determining the molecular composition of the artificial sweetener Equal, got her thinking about tackling more pressing scientific questions, so she decided to attend Caltech. Although Jackson came to Caltech undecided on a major, she quickly gravitated to chemistry.

"As soon as I got in a chemistry lab, I knew that chemistry was what I wanted to do,'" she says of her first experience as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) in chemistry professor Harry Gray's lab her freshman year.

That summer, she worked with a graduate student, Alec Durrell (PhD '12), on binuclear palladium catalysts for carbon-hydrogen bond functionalization. These reactions are essential in the synthesis of many pharmaceuticals, but they are quite difficult due to the inert nature of carbon-hydrogen bonds. Additionally, these reactions often require harsh chemical oxidants such as chlorine gas. Jackson and Durrell developed an electrocatalyst that reacts with chloride, essentially replacing chlorine gas with table salt and a wall socket—a much friendlier solution. Their work was published in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry.

After Durrell graduated, Jackson built upon the team's findings by designing and synthesizing a series of related palladium complexes, probing their electronic and spectroscopic properties.

"It was fantastic to be able to have my own project," she says, adding that she is thrilled to have been part of Gray's "Solar Army." "Harry has been the best research advisor, and the entire group has been really supportive."

In addition to participating in the SURF and Amgen Scholars programs at Caltech, Jackson's research earned her the Renuka D. Sharma Award, the Arie J. Haagen­Smit Memorial Award, and the George W. and Bernice E. Green Memorial Prize, as well as graduate fellowships sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. She has also had several opportunities to present her work at conferences, including this year's American Chemical Society conference in New Orleans. Jackson's travel to the meeting was funded through Caltech's George W. Housner Student Discovery Fund.

"Megan is a real ball of fire who makes molecules do what she tells them!" says Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and founding director of the Beckman Institute. "And she is great fun to be with—a star in our group."

When she wasn't in the lab at Caltech, Jackson could be found playing for the women's volleyball team as a libero and participating in Blacker House activities.

"A lot of my best stories come from living in Blacker and doing Ditch Day and the other fun traditions," she says.

For this year's Ditch Day, Jackson and a friend built a Harry Potter–themed stack that began with a "potions" puzzle. Divided into two teams—Gryffindor and Ravenclaw—students trying to solve the stack mixed colorful solutions for wildly different results. While the Gryffindor potions turned vibrant colors, the Ravenclaw potions turned murky white or simply failed to react.

"That's when the Ravenclaws found out they weren't really wizards, but scientists trying to learn about magic—the storylines evolved from there," she says.

Next up for the curious chemist is graduate school—Jackson will be attending MIT in the fall and plans to focus on energy-related chemistry. Her long-term goal is to have her own lab at a research university.

Written by Katie Neith