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College of Arts and Sciences

USC chemist wins highest honor for scientists awarded in Germany

a man and woman holding an award
Natalia Shustova was honored in March at the Humboldt Foundation’s award ceremonies in Germany.

Place a plant near a window and watch what happens: the leaves gradually move, reaching out to capture more rays of sun.

This natural mechanism is something chemist Natalia Shustova aims to replicate in materials that can harvest light and transform in response to absorbing energy, much in the same way plants convert sunlight into chemical energy. 

“It’s like trying to create an artificial leaf,” says Shustova, endowed professor in USC’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “It sounds simple, but it’s really not.” 

The research will have applications ranging from clean energy to the development of sensors that can detect nuclear radiation. 

This spring, Shustova’s work on light harvesting gained the support of Germany’s Humboldt Foundation, which honored her with the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award. The most prestigious honor of its kind in Germany, the award is given to scientists who exemplify excellence in research and innovation throughout their career. 

Before joining the faculty at USC in 2013, Shustova built an extensive resume. After her master’s degree, she earned two doctoral degrees — in physical chemistry and inorganic chemistry — and completed her postdoctoral research in materials science at MIT. 

Over the years, Shustova has shifted her focus more solidly to materials science, working to engineer materials for specific uses. Her extensive chemistry training gives her a rare combination of skills to take on some of the most complex issues the world faces, such as nuclear waste remediation. 

“I wanted to create something useful. If you look around, all of us use materials for anything and everything related to energy,” she says. “So, this is what I really wanted to do, because I want my work to be useful for society.” 

Shustova is also the principal investigator for a U.S. Department of Energy center at USC, which is working to create long-term storage solutions for nuclear waste. She was instrumental in developing a partnership with Savannah River National Laboratory, which allows certain faculty and graduate students to work with nuclear materials.

As a Humboldt fellow, Shustova receives a significant award to support her research at USC as well as the sponsorship of a partner institution in Germany. She is an affiliate of the Technical University of Munich and will travel to Germany this summer for research and to promote her work. 

The partnership will also extend to students at both universities, providing the opportunity for USC students to study abroad in Germany and for German students to come to USC. 

“I view it as opening the door to promote scientific collaboration, not just between universities but between countries,” Shustova says. 

Growing scientists at USC 

While her research has landed her international acclaim, one of Shustova’s biggest contributions at USC has been her dedication to her students, with a lab group known for its collaborative atmosphere. Her commitment to research excellence and preparing the next generation of scientists recently earned her USC’s Russell Research Award for Science, Mathematics and Engineering. 

“Over the years, the culture in the group has been that my senior graduate students take a lot of time for training undergraduates,” Shustova says. 

“It doesn’t matter where you go, the philosophy is the same everywhere: you need to be successful. With this in mind, we train them to present and to talk about science and to communicate with the public.”

If you look around, all of us use materials for anything and everything related to energy. So, this is what I really wanted to do, because I want my work to be useful for society.

Natalia Shustova

Her research group has trained nearly 60 undergraduate researchers, including 14 who received the competitive Magellan Scholar award to fund student-faculty research. 

Senior Kelly Forrester is one of them. She says Shustova and her graduate mentors helped her navigate everything from her Magellan Scholars application to preparing for her medical school admissions interview. Along with scores of other students, Forrester credits her time in Shustova’s lab with helping her get into medical school. 

“I felt like it was the strongest aspect of my application to med school, because I had a lot to show for my time in research,” she says. “Not everyone can say, ‘I’m on three papers and got three grants.’ You don’t always think about how much these things will help you.” 

Forrester says the rigor of Shustova’s training has given her a passion for chemistry and prepared her to pursue research as a future medical school student. 

“I realized early on that if you put effort into her lab, or just show that you care to learn and put in the work, Dr. Shustova would put the effort back into you,” she says. 

Shustova would say that the contributions of students have been the bigger help to her: “They were active participants in the research, and I feel I’m the one who benefited from their participation.” 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.