Whitney Fowler received her BE in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Vanderbilt University in spring 2015. After working for a year for a nonprofit organization, she came to the University of Chicago to work toward her PhD at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. She returned to academia wanting to do research directed toward real-world applications and problems, specifically that of the global clean water crisis. Under the coadvisement of Professor Matthew Tirrell and Professor Juan de Pablo, Whitney is currently working on designing materials to selectively isolate and recycle phosphate from aqueous solutions.
As many resources are being unsustainably depleted as the global population exponentially rises, society is turning toward wastewater as a new source for reclaiming valuable nutrients. One strategic resource to recover is phosphate. Though it is profuse in wastewater and agricultural runoffs, it is also a nonrenewable resource that is rapidly being depleted yet is vital for the food industry as a fertilizer. Thus, Whitney’s research aims to design, synthesize, and characterize a new class of materials that bind and retain phosphate and can subsequently release and recover it in a controllable manner. The platform for this material design is biologically inspired peptide amphiphiles (PAs), which can strategically incorporate the natural binding characteristics of proteins. Peptide binding sequences will be synthesized into the headgroup of PA molecules, which will then be displayed to the environment as the PAs spontaneously self-assemble into micelles and designable hydrogels. This work will not only explore fundamental knowledge of binding to functional groups on supramolecular structures, but also pave the way for developing an innovative class of capture-and-release materials that can target and reclaim valuable resources from water.