Mary Blankenship delicately shifted a lever and peered intently inside the porthole window of the polished stainless steel dome, showing a visitor how the $1 million behemoth of a machine links to a twisted conglomeration of tubes connected to low-vibration pumps, a glove box, and other vacuum-sealed chambers.
This chemistry lab is an interesting setting for the UNLV senior, who as a teen disliked math and science so much that she once declared to stunned relatives she would never consider a career in those fields. Just a few years later, as a college sophomore, she became the first undergraduate in UNLV history to oversee a machine like “Scienta,” a complex instrument used by UNLV researchers to help companies, national labs, and other universities figure out how to make solar cells and other devices more durable, cheaper to obtain, and better-working.
The lab is just the latest stop on Blankenship’s path to pour her newfound passion for science and policy into solutions for global social and environmental problems like climate change and, one day, help to change the world. Through her work with UNLV Brookings Mountain West and acclaimed UNLV chemistry professor Clemens Heske, Blankenship is now a published social scientist and chemist who has presented her research on the national and international stage.
Blankenship’s global journey started on a small Ukrainian farm, where she lived as a child before moving to the U.S. in 2006. Now, 15 years later, she is slated to graduate in December as an Honors College student with dual bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and economics, and a minor in Brookings public policy.
“I feel so blessed to do what I do. Every day I get a chance to work on policy or COVID issues with people in D.C., then I research solar cells in the lab. And on the same day I might also focus on local policy issues with Brookings Mountain West,” she said. “So I’m always surrounded by people who care deeply about the world, and it’s so inspiring and humbling to be among them.”
In The Beginning
That global influence is evident in Heske’s lab, where flags line the wall representing the countries of origin of the team’s researchers. For Blankenship, there’s Ukraine, where she was raised by her mother and grandparents. Blankenship's job on her family’s farm was to tend to the baby animals — ducks, chickens, and goats — which gave her an appreciation for nature and the environment. “I never would’ve thought I’d be here doing the work I do.”
In 2006, Blankenship moved to the United States with her mother and American stepfather and later became a U.S. citizen. The 8-year-old felt as if she’d time-traveled from the simple, 1930s-era kind of life of her hometown into the future. “It’s interesting to think about, especially since I now work in high-tech.”
The family eventually settled in Las Vegas, where her parents enrolled her in the Coral Academy of Science. It was an interesting choice, considering that Blankenship — a self-described history nerd with a penchant for politics and presidential trivia — wasn’t exactly a fan of the sciences.
Blankenship, whose early childhood hobbies had included using the side of her Ukrainian home as a chalkboard for math equations, didn’t see a future in the subject in the U.S, following a few poor experiences with her new teachers. “I thought it was boring and archaic and you had to be super smart to do it,” Blankenship said. “It came as a pretty big shock to my family when they found out that, in college, I was working in a lab and majoring in science.”
Her high school experiences did, however, rekindle her interest in environmental causes. She recalls class discussions on global issues like climate change that at the time she felt hopeless yet eager to change. At UNLV, Blankenship decided to channel those aspirations into two areas that would allow her to do something about it: a major in economics and a minor in the Brookings Mountain West public policy program.
Blankenship credits business professor Brad Wimmer, public policy experts Bill Brown and Carol Graham, and the late Brookings executive director Robert E. Lang for helping her foster her passions.
To truly impact climate policies, though, Blankenship realized she would need to be more familiar with the way scientists work and think. But the path less trodden meant difficulty breaking into a seemingly disparate field. So, the freshman talked with UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research, which connected her with the Heske group in the department of chemistry and biochemistry.
Her determination and interest paid off. Blankenship scored a spot on the Heske team and now oversees operation of Scienta, one of the largest pieces of research lab equipment on UNLV’s campus and the only machine like it in the world.
“I remember the first time I saw the lab and everything looked so beautiful and cool. I thought working in the lab would be just a small activity,” Blankenship said. “Little did I know it would change my life.”
A Call to Action
As an undergraduate, she has performed research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s California-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, and she traveled to Washington, D.C., and even to Strasbourg, France, for an oral presentation on thin-film solar cells at a leading global conference.
That’s on top of her research with Brookings Mountain West. Her published research on Twitter misinformation and the summer 2020 racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd made international headlines in outlets including the Las Vegas Sun, The Toronto Star, and Global News Canada. She has also examined Nigeria’s Twitter ban and online reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. This past summer, she completed an internship with the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings Institution, working on issues related to energy, environment, and COVID-19 misinformation on the continent.
”Mary has built an impressive resume that speaks to the core of what UNLV is striving to achieve through our undergraduate research opportunities,” said UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield, whose experiences as a minority biomedical research student during his undergraduate studies has lent first-hand knowledge on the power of such access. “Study after study has shown that undergraduates who engage in research are more connected to their institutions and more successful academically. Students like Mary bring fresh perspectives and new energy to university research labs, and graduate well-equipped to succeed in an increasingly global workforce.”
Blankenship’s message to other students? “No matter how many questions and doubts you have, don’t be shy to explore, to take the path less traveled, or to try new and surprising things — you may never know where it might lead.”
What’s more, she hopes to use her platform to encourage other researchers to pursue dual paths that combine social and natural sciences, which she credits with helping her to grow as a person and develop both research and soft skills.
“Mary has a natural gift to direct her excitement and interests into new and important directions,” said Heske, who has guided Blankenship through the fears and doubts of entering and continuing in an internationally competitive research field. “Being so broadly curious about how the world is connected, on a microscopic as well as global scale, truly helps her to identify the important aspects in her research and policy work. We look for new group members with a ‘spark in the eye’ – it’s not about grades, it’s about excitement, team spirit, diversity, leadership potential, and a deep appreciation of the mechanisms of nature. And Mary embodies this in a unique way.”
Whether it’s crafting policy with Brookings Mountain West or solving scientific challenges in the Heske lab, Blankenship has certainly made the most of her experience at UNLV thus far.
“I get to be in two realms: Social and natural sciences don’t like to mingle and I think that’s a great shame. You solve so many problems when you combine them,” Blankenship said. “That’s one of the great barriers — people in STEM and other fields don’t know how to find the same language to talk to one another. But people who work in very different fields can create that bridge. I hope to be one of them.”