Argonne’s Postdoctoral Performance Award recognizes scientific achievements, leadership, and collaboration.
Article authored by: Michael Matz, Argonne Associate
Since her early days growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Lily Robertson has always wanted to help make the world a better place.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about issues like recycling and climate change,” said Robertson, a postdoctoral appointee at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. “I think a lot about how we only have one planet to live on.”
Today, Robertson is following her passion by coming up with new battery molecules and materials that can make the world a better place. In doing so, she has made significant research contributions to the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne.
Robertson was one of 11 postdocs to receive Argonne’s 2021 Postdoctoral Performance Award. The award recognizes researchers who have made significant scientific achievements in their fields while demonstrating excellent problem-solving, collaborative, and leadership abilities. Awardees were nominated by fellow Argonne researchers.
Robertson’s research has focused on redox flow batteries, which store chemical energy in molecules dissolved in liquids. She was the first author on a JCESR study to design energy-storing molecules that emit a fluorescent glow when they migrate to the wrong part of the battery. The idea behind this research was to give batteries the ability to monitor their own performance and health. The study received JCESR’s Best Paper Award in 2020.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about issues like recycling and climate change. I think a lot about how we only have one planet to live on.”— Lily Robertson, Postdoctoral Appointee
“This was the first time ever that researchers invented and demonstrated molecules that can trace themselves in a flow battery,” said Lu Zhang, an Argonne chemist and Robertson’s supervisor. “Lily’s paper is very influential work that will lead to other research milestones later on.”
In addition to extending her research on self-monitoring molecules, Robertson is researching other aspects of flow batteries. Her work includes developing other types of molecules, characterizing the structure of materials, and designing electrolytes that can store a high concentration of energy-storing molecules.
A Team Player
One of JCESR’s strengths is its 20 diverse partner institutions, which include national labs, universities, and one company. JCESR’s collaborative approach with these organizations has helped drive Robertson’s intellectual growth and high-impact research at Argonne. In addition to her work with many Argonne scientists, she is currently collaborating with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Kentucky.
“I feel like I’ve blossomed with JCESR’s team approach,” said Robertson. “I’ve worked with synthetic chemists to develop battery molecules. I’ve worked with experts in material characterization techniques. I’ve collaborated with computational scientists on the use of machine learning to identify promising molecules. JCESR’s biweekly meetings have been a great opportunity to learn about other battery research, hear valuable suggestions to advance my own research, and start collaborations.”
“JCESR researchers like Lily can learn from, collaborate, and network with numerous scientists from its 20 partner institutions, each of which has its own style, culture, expertise, and perspectives,” said George Crabtree, JCESR’s director and an Argonne senior scientist. “This helps them become more well-rounded and achieve stronger research outcomes. In fact, 65 percent of JCESR’s papers are authored by more than one institution.”
A Natural Leader
In addition to her research achievements, Robertson has demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities. In 2021, she was president of the Argonne Postdoctoral Society, a group that provides peer support, mentoring, networking, and other support for more than 300 Argonne postdocs.
In that role, she organized regular virtual meetings so that postdocs could share experiences and receive peer support during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one particularly impactful effort, Robertson and the Postdoctoral Society’s Board coordinated a survey of postdocs on their pandemic-related concerns. Then, they organized a virtual meeting to discuss the survey results and provide helpful mental health resources.
“Being a postdoc can be fairly isolating, especially during the pandemic,” said Robertson. “I wanted to help postdocs make it through the difficult time.”
“Lily has a very big heart,” said Zhang. “She likes to help people.”
Robertson’s leadership skills extend to facilitating collaboration among JCESR researchers.
“JCESR researchers like Lily can learn from, collaborate, and network with numerous scientists from its 20 partner institutions, each of which has its own style, culture, expertise, and perspectives.” — George Crabtree, JCESR Director
“Lily regularly organizes JCESR meetings that bring together more than 10 researchers,” said Zhang. “She coordinates all the schedules and leads the discussions. These efforts help to drive the research forward.”
Robertson is a leader in laboratory safety. She manages two gloveboxes, which are sealed containers with controlled atmospheric conditions that enable researchers to handle materials safely. She also voluntarily organized and submitted more than 100 lab chemicals for a disposal program.
“Lily constantly keeps an eye on the safety of her lab and helps others to follow safety codes,” said Zhang. “She plays a very impactful role in day-to-day laboratory activities.”
As to her career plans, Robertson would like to continue as an energy storage researcher at Argonne or another National Laboratory. She’s interested in broadening her focus beyond flow batteries to other areas, such as recycling materials in batteries with a range of chemistries (not only lithium-ion), new anodes (negative battery electrodes) made of silicon, and automated, rapid synthesis of battery materials.
The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, is a major partnership that integrates researchers from many disciplines to overcome critical scientific and technical barriers and create new breakthrough energy storage technology. Led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, partners include national leaders in science and engineering from academia, the private sector, and national laboratories. Their combined expertise spans the full range of the technology-development pipeline from basic research to prototype development to product engineering to market delivery.
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