Forming Bonds

Karen I. Goldberg ’83 uses chemistry to tackle global energy problems

By Marie DeNoia Aronsohn

Karen Goldberg

For Karen I. Goldberg ’83, bonds are of central importance in work and life — and making and breaking molecular bonds has been foundational to her pioneering research in alternative fuel sources. As a renowned chemical scientist, Goldberg has amassed a long list of academic accomplishments: among them, pushing the boundaries in the development of alternative energy feedstocks — that is, moving away from petroleum and learning to use other carbon resources for our fuels and chemicals.

Her interest in science, and chemistry specifically, is rooted in her time at Barnard. While an undergraduate, Goldberg pursued research projects with professors at Cornell and Columbia Universities and at AT&T Laboratories. She then went on to earn her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. After postdoctoral work at Ohio State University, followed by faculty appointments at Illinois State University and the University of Washington, Goldberg joined the University of Pennsylvania as a Vagelos Professor in Energy Research and the inaugural director of the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology in 2017. 

“The Vageloses’ dedication and investment in finding viable solutions to climate change was a critical factor in this decision [to take the job at Penn],” Goldberg says, “and the Barnard connection made it even more special.” (Roy and Diana Vagelos ’55 are longtime Barnard trustees, whose generous support has funded numerous projects, including the Diana Center.)

In 2018, Goldberg marked another triumph when she was elected to the highly prestigious National Academy of Science.

All along the way, molecular bonds have been critical. “I feel that that’s the key to everything. Chemistry is largely about making and breaking bonds between atoms, so the more we can figure out how we can control those processes, the further we can go with making all the things that we want, from pharmaceuticals, to plastics, to fibers, to fuels and more,” says Goldberg. In fact, she believes, the solutions to many of the world’s problems, among them climate change, lie in developing a greater understanding of the making and breaking of molecular bonds.

Goldberg made a compelling case about the power of chemistry to solve the climate crisis last month when she visited Barnard’s campus for two days, delivering two lectures as part of a series of ongoing events for the Barnard Year of Science.

“Climate change is really a chemistry problem,” she posited during her lecture, “and science has helped us solve such big chemistry problems in the past.” Goldberg pointed to a historic crisis at the beginning of the 20th century when the world population was expected to surpass global food sources. The problem, she explained, was a projected shortage of fertilizer. At the time, world agriculture depended on bird manure (guano) from tropical islands and on nitrate deposits in Chile for fertilizer. “We needed to find a way to make fertilizer on a large scale. Chemists saved the day,” Goldberg said. The key ingredient of fertilizer is nitrogen, and scientists recognized that there is a huge amount of it in the air — but not in a form that can be used for fertilizer. 

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An innovation called the Haber-Bosch process provided the solution. “Chemists found a way to break the very strong nitrogen-nitrogen bond in gaseous nitrogen and form the nitrogen-hydrogen bonds needed to make ammonia [a potent fertilizer]. This was the single most important technical advance in the 20th century. Billions of people on earth are alive today because of the Haber-Bosch process,” said Goldberg.

In much the same way, new chemistry is needed to allow us to move away from burning fossil fuels as our primary energy source. Anthropogenic use of fossil fuels directly tracks with the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) — a greenhouse gas that absorbs heat — contributing to global warming and climate change. CO2 levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. Reducing CO2 is pivotal to stemming the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Goldberg’s work investigates how CO2, methane, and even discarded plastics might be used as carbon feedstocks for fuel. “We have to change where we get our energy. Scientists are working hard to improve processes for getting energy from the sun and wind, but we will also need liquid fuels to store that energy for use at night and for other purposes — to keep flying planes, for example,” she says. “This is the moment in time for a moon-shot effort in renewable energy research. You need a lot of scientists with varied expertise and new ideas working together to diversify our energy landscape. The clock is ticking on climate change, and a lot of money and effort needs to be put into this problem now.”

Goldberg understands the importance of such hard work and commitment. She remains deeply connected to Barnard and views her college experience as key to her career and life, preparing her for the challenging, once male-dominated STEM profession.

“It was so nice because it was small. You got to know your professors, and they got to know you. Barnard had everything to offer as a small liberal arts school but had all that a large university [Columbia] offered as well. And to top it off, it was right in the middle of an exciting and vibrant city. It was like this perfect environment, and it still is,” says Goldberg. 

Goldberg did run up against sexism, though. “In my sophomore year,” she says, “I took an honors organic chemistry class at Columbia, and it was myself and another Barnard student. I remember hearing, the first day, Columbia students walking into class saying, ‘Oh, good, girls in the class — they will lower the curve.’” 

In graduate school at Berkeley, prejudice surrounding women in science also felt daunting. But Goldberg says that Barnard had prepared her well: “The education I got there, and the courses, gave me a very solid foundation to get through graduate school. But it also gave me the confidence that I needed to continue during times of challenge.”

Goldberg points to Barnard professor Bernice Segal in particular. Segal, who led the Chemistry Department through much of the 1970s and ’80s, died in April 1989. “Professor Segal was tough but also inspiring and nurturing. I still remember Professor Segal telling me that I was actually good at this. It wasn’t just that I worked hard. I can’t even put into words what that meant to me.

“I think it’s realizing the impact Barnard had in setting me off on my trajectory — giving me the foundation both in science and the courage and the faith in myself to keep going.”

So last year, when the renowned chemist was asked to renew her connection with the College and become a member of Barnard’s Board of Trustees, the obvious answer was yes. Some bonds are built to last.

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The Summer 2022 issue celebrates the return of Barnard's beloved events and traditions to campus and a successful year of programming dedicated to all things STEM.