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Heather LeClerc

Heather LeClerc used a previous NSF award to travel to Valencia, Spain, where she presented research at the Unconventional Catalysis and Reactor Applications conference.

WPI PhD Student With “Vision for Change” Receives Two Fellowships

Chemical engineering student focuses work on creating green energy and supporting women in STEM

June 18, 2020

A third-year PhD student at WPI has been awarded two fellowships—one of which is a highly prestigious award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that is aimed at helping recipients become lifelong leaders who “contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching.”

Heather LeClerc, who is pursuing a chemical engineering PhD with a focus on the fundamentals of catalytic hydrothermal liquefaction of food waste, has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. The three-year award is for $140,000. Past fellowship recipients include numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and Google founder Sergey Brin.

LeClerc also recently received a $5,000 Heh-Won Chang, PhD, Fellowship in Green Chemistry  from the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. The Fellowship is given to full-time graduate students focusing on sustainable chemistry, an area of chemistry and chemical engineering aimed at designing products and processes that minimize or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.

“Heather is an exceptional student and researcher,” says Andrew Teixeira, assistant professor of chemical engineering and LeClerc’s research advisor. “Heather’s curiosity and passion for research is infectious. She is not okay with the status quo. She has a clear vision for the change she wants to bring to the world, and recognizes her path to get there—using research in alternative fuels, engagement in social change, and influence through empowering others.”

Susan Roberts, professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, added that the NSF fellowship is widely known to be not only highly competitive, but arguably the most prestigious award the NSF offers graduate students. Recipients are expected to become knowledge experts who contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. “This fellowship goes to the top of the top students pursuing PhD work,” says Roberts. “The NSF doesn’t just want great scholars for this award. They want people who have a vision, a comprehensive plan, for how their work is going to impact society and broaden participation in STEM.”

And LeClerc, as a researcher who wants to promote science as well as women in STEM, fits that bill.

“My goal, as a scientist and engineer, is to advance our intellectual knowledge to realize a world without waste where we harness these solid waste streams to create new, sustainable energy sources, while simultaneously inspiring the future generation of women in STEM,” she wrote in a personal statement to the NSF. “Receiving this fellowship will allow me to dedicate time to research as well as foster a love of science in other women who may not have access or support otherwise.”

LeClerc, who is from Southington, Conn., is focusing her research on making biofuels out of food waste. She is working with Teixeira and Michael Timko, associate professor of chemical engineering, who has been working on ways to turn food and green waste into green energy.

“I’ve always been really interested in biofuels and energy in general,” says LeClerc. “Sustainable energy is a global issue.”

The fellowships, she adds, will give her the freedom to focus on her research and delve into understanding the underlying kinetics and chemistry that are part of the process of turning food waste into biofuel. “This process is still relatively new,” she notes. “No one really knows yet what is happening and what reactions will make the best catalysts, what the best conditions are and the fundamentals of the process itself. Understanding all of this will allow us to create more efficient processes in the future.”

LeClerc will continue her research in both Timko's and Teixeira’s labs. 

She is president of WPI’s Chemical Engineering Graduate Organization at WPI, and a national student liaison chair to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) Women in Chemical Engineering (WIC) executive board. While serving as a graduate mentor for two semesters in the Women’s Research and Mentorship Program at WPI, she also is working with Roberts to launch a chapter of the AIChE WIC at WPI. 

–By Sharon Gaudin