Anyone who has watched a houseplant bend toward the sun has witnessed the power of light to transform and sustain life. Understanding how light energy, when paired with nanotechnology, could potentially trigger structural changes in molecules is at the heart of the research Julianne Griepenburg conducts as an assistant professor of physics at Rutgers University in Camden. Griepenburg’s lab was recently awarded a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant to explore how lasers can be used to provoke reactions, especially when paired with gold nanoparticles, which are small enough to be placed in very specific areas of cells or molecules.
“Gold nanoparticles have very interesting properties, especially when they are irradiated with pulsed lasers, such as those found in the PuLSSE Lab at Rutgers–Camden,” said Griepenburg. “Depending on their shape and size, they can strongly absorb light and harness that energy; when those same gold nanoparticles are attached to the membranes of carrier vesicles, that energy causes a structural disruption that allows the vesicle to release its contents.”
In practical terms, Griepenburg’s research is likely to have a lasting impact in a variety of areas, especially the targeted delivery of therapeutic medical treatments. Her research could allow drug therapies to treat a wide range of diseases with minimal disruption to healthy tissue, improving quality of life for countless people facing serious illness.
Griepenburg is passionate about the work she and her team are doing, but she is just as passionate about ensuring she is helping to open doors for individuals who have long been underrepresented in the sciences. A specific part of her application to the National Science Foundation was dedicated to “changing the media portrayal of what a scientist should look like” by recruiting students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences and through proactive outreach programs in Camden’s public grade schools.
“I can’t count how many times I have been told, ‘You don’t look like a scientist,’ said Griepenburg. “When I was younger, I tried to avoid those conversations because they always made me feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t know how to respond. The more I progress in my career, the more I think about the deeper meaning behind those comments and how can we change stereotypes.”
According to a 2023 National Science Foundation report on diversity and STEM, women make up only about a third of those employed in STEM occupations, even though they are 51 percent of the overall workforce. The statistics on women working specifically in physics are even more skewed, with women representing only about 20 percent of all working physicists.
“We are in a pivotal time in the STEM/STEAM fields where the importance of equitable representation is being recognized and is steadily improving,” Griepenburg said. “However, we still have a lot of work to do, especially in the physical sciences. When representation is not adequate for certain groups, it can result in unconscious bias which then needs to be continuously overcome.”
Griepenburg’s message for Camden’s grade-school students will be focused on challenging traditional stereotypes by demonstrating that anyone can become a successful scientist, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or disability.
“People are not born with a stereotypical view of what a scientist should look like; this is learned and developed over formative years,” Griepenburg said. “My hope is that this early intervention will prevent these ideas from solidifying. While major societal change cannot happen overnight, these small positive steps will propagate through communities and through generations to eventually make a lasting impact.”
Ultimately, Griepenburg maintains a laser focus on her research. Even as she works to erode stereotypes, she never loses sight of what her lab aims to achieve for the benefit of others.
“The ultimate goal is to be able to control where, when, and how much of a drug is delivered, in order to decrease the side effects of many common therapeutics,” said Griepenburg. “This would be transformative.”
March is Women's History Month. This year's storytelling campaign, “Full STEAM Ahead,” spotlights the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, introducing our community to some of the many women on campus who excel as researchers and scholars.
For centuries, women were denied full participation in the intellectual pursuits that have transformed human knowledge and culture. Although much has been done to increase equality, women and girls can still face bias and other roadblocks when attempting to make their mark in male-dominated disciplines. Each story in this monthlong campaign will tell the story of a woman who has persevered in the face of gender inequality, producing work that stands alongside the best in her field.
Creative Design: Beatris Santos