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College of Arts and Sciences

  • Kristen Pace Works in a lab

Chemistry Ph.D. wins Breakthrough Award recognizing nuclear waste research

You never forget the first time you create a new crystal to hold nuclear waste.

For Kristen Pace, that came in September 2019, after a year of traveling to Savannah River National Laboratory for research. As a Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina, she was working on novel ways of containing plutonium and other radioactive waste in crystals. Her success could help create new ways of storing nuclear waste and keeping the radioactivity at bay for thousands of years.

At first, that success was hard to come by.

“It was easy to get discouraged after nearly a year of trial and error with little success,” Pace says. “But all of this made the success of that first plutonium crystal that much sweeter when it finally did happen.”

Creating the new chemical crystals required careful experimentation and coordination with the large team at the Savannah River site.

“It was also one of the first experiences I had in grad school where my success was not solely based upon how much effort I put in,” Pace says. “It took an enormous amount of coordination between a lot of different groups and people between UofSC and SRNL.” 

With that teamwork, Pace was able to begin synthesizing new crystal structures, after which she would analyze the structures in a lab back at UofSC. Although the perfect solution for storing nuclear waste has not emerged, creating and examining crystal structures will help scientists discover which structures are the best at containing radioactive particles and how to make better ones.

“I hope that my research will make an impact in the field of actinide sciences - which is a relatively new field of science - in that even the smallest discoveries can contribute to a much bigger realization down the road,” she says. 

Pace, who recently completed her Ph.D. and began a postdoctoral fellowship Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is one of four Arts and Sciences graduates selected for UofSC's Breakthrough Graduate Scholar Award. It was no surprise to those who have worked with her.

“Kristen has amazing chemical insight that has led to her truly outstanding research accomplishments in actinide chemistry,” says Hanno zur Loye, a Carolina Distinguished Professor and Pace’s advisor.

Before the Breakthrough Scholar Award, Pace won a first-place prize in the Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Awards sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. She has published more than a dozen papers with more than 50 citations.  

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