Carnegie Mellon University
August 31, 2023

Payton Downey Honored with Niccolai-Fustanio Award

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Payton Downey is shedding light on chemistry research.

"I'm doing work on compounds and their photochemical properties," said Downey, a senior in chemistry with a minor in physics. "I like understanding things, so this is nice to look at things no one else has thought of."

Downey works with Stefan Bernhard, professor of chemistry, to investigate how and why certain chemicals absorb and refract light.

Light can be polarized to rotate to the left or the right. In an ordinary light fixture, such as a lamp, the rotation cancels out. However, certain chemicals known as chiral luminophores can polarize the light depending on the orientation of their functional groups. The same molecule can affect light in different ways depending on its chiral form.

Researchers are unsure why this is the case, but Downey said they hope to find the answer using machine learning techniques.

Bernhard said that this research has potential applications in display technology and biological detection systems, and Downey's work has been central to the lab's progress.

"The research in our lab focuses on light to chemical energy conversions, specifically on the development of novel solar fuel schemes," Bernhard said. "In the progress of their work in our lab, Payton has proven to be an efficient and highly competent worker. They displayed unusual independence, while performing the tasks assigned to them, typically accomplishing them with minimal instruction or supervision. Payton has shown an extremely strong sense of self-motivation."

Besides performing their own research, Downey assists other labs, including the Noonan group and the Peteanu group, by running samples through a process called circularly polarized luminescence (CPL). CPL demonstrates how compounds react to light, and the data can be used to learn more about the compounds' makeup and orientation. Because of Payton's work, they have helped author two research publications.

Outside of the lab, Downey served as a resident assistant for Mudge House and Stever House, which are dorms for first-year undergraduate students.

"I ended up meeting a lot of really nice people, and my staff there was amazing," Downey said. "I really enjoyed the people."

Downey is most involved in the Carnegie Mellon chapter of PRISM, an LGBTQ+ student organization with chapters across the country. They first joined the group their first year of college.

"I saw their impact on the queer community and the community they built, and I really like having that space," Downey said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Downey said that PRISM allowed them to connect with their fellow students at a time where it was difficult to find friends and community elsewhere. Since then, Downey has taken a leadership role, especially in the nonbinary and trans support group.

"The one I'm most directly involved in is called the Gender Spot," Downey said. "It's a trans and nonbinary support group. They have a binder program for people who can't afford them and general funding for gender-affirming resources."

PRISM hosts regular meetings so students can socialize and get to know each other, sometimes involving crafts, movies and snacks. The group also advocates for LGBTQ+ students on campus and in the Pittsburgh area. Downey said they hope more students join the group and become involved.

"The easiest way to join is to get on the email list so you can see events and show up to whichever one you want," Downey said. "You don't need to be involved, but people can propose events or things they want to do."

Because of Downey's dedication to their research and fellow students, they received the Niccolai-Fustanio award, which recognizes a rising MCS senior who has achieved academic success while pursuing experiences outside of the classroom. The scholarship was established in 2016 by MCS alumni Nilo A. and Phylis F. Niccolai.

"Payton is unafraid of hard work whether in the classroom, the research lab or in service of the community," said Karen Stump, teaching professor and the director of undergraduate studies & laboratories for chemistry. "They engage enthusiastically and collaboratively with others in the community especially in forwarding an environment that is tolerant and accepting of differences."

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