School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

A slick solution - Meet Morgan Lehtinen

PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry   

by Phil Gaudreau, April 2020

Amy Cleaver

Ever pour out salad dressing from a bottle and forget to shake it up? You end up with an oily mess while all the seasoning stays at the bottom.

Oil and water only mix properly when there is a compound that reduces the surface tension between the two, known as a surfactant. Sometimes, you want the oil and other components to mix–like when you pour out your dressing. Other times, however, you want the oil separated–like it normally would during an oil spill in the ocean.

“Unfortunately, the oil and water usually interact with a natural surfactant and, once the two are emulsified together, they become very hard to separate,” explains Morgan Lehtinen (Artsci’16), a third-year PhD candidate.  

Morgan didn’t always start out interested in chemistry. The Newmarket native originally enrolled seeking to become a doctor to help people with lifelong illnesses, like her mom. But she realized the emotional load of working in medicine was not for her, and she looked for something that would meet her need for creativity and inquiry on the job.

She found what she was looking for in the chemistry department and was particularly hooked after taking on a fourth-year research project with Dr. Guojon Liu.

“I liked the applied nature of Dr. Liu’s projects and decided I wasn’t done,” Morgan says. “I stayed on for a master’s, which became a PhD…and I’m now on my eighth year at Queen’s!”

Morgan’s is looking to develop a fabric membrane to help separate oil and water, which would make the clean-up from oil spills more efficient and reduce the use of harmful chemical absorbents. The technology could have other applications, so she is currently exploring options to commercialize her work with help from the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre and the Office of Partnerships and Innovation.

“My dream would be to start my own company,” she says. “The entrepreneurial career path would combine my love of science and creativity. There are amazing opportunities and funding within Queen’s for entrepreneurial endeavours.”

Morgan’s passion has shone through in presentations at the 256th American Chemical Society Conference, where she received “Best Presentation/Paper” in the Colloidal and Interfacial Science in Separation Mechanisms Division, and in the 2019 Young Persons’ Lecture Competition where she was selected to represent Canada at a worldwide competition. She placed third overall.

Being in the lab is not her only passion, however. Morgan has dedicated significant time during her studies to improving the already strong student experience for her peers in chemistry. She is president of the chemistry student graduate society and has used this role to increase contact with local chemistry employers in Kingston. Morgan also serves as a graduate ambassador for incoming graduate students to help them acclimatize to the department and to Kingston.

“All of the professors and staff at Queen’s Chemistry have been wonderful and supportive,” she says. “I always tell prospective students to come, see the campus, meet the professors, and to ensure they are passionate about their field and their project. Graduate school requires a lot of time and commitment so make sure it's something you enjoy and feel excited to do every day.”

Outside of school, Morgan takes advantage of the Kingston waterfront by walking her dog and enjoys the local farmer’s markets and bustling food scene.

To learn more about graduate studies in Chemistry at Queen’s, visit the School of Graduate Studies’ website.