Antiguan Chemistry star Joni Spencer named Rhodes scholar finalist

The content originally appeared on: Antigua News Room

By Gisela Valencia for FIU

Senior Joni Spencer is a force to reckon with.

The native of Antigua and Barbuda came to FIU in 2019 and built a top-notch academic career for herself. A chemistry and math major who currently boasts a 4.0 GPA, Spencer was part of a group of Panthers who participated in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research program this past summer. During the program, she analyzed ways to optimize a material for use in batteries for electrical cars — and how to make these cars a more efficient, sustainable alternative to combustion engine cars.

Spencer was recently named a finalist for the internationally recognized 2023 Rhodes Scholarship. The scholarship is often considered the most prestigious international program of its kind in the world and is also the oldest one, first started in 1902. If selected during the next round of interviews, Spencer would receive a scholarship to study full-time, post-graduation at the globally acclaimed University of Oxford.

“I’m so excited,” Spencer says. “I came to study in the U.S. because I wanted to have access to people with different viewpoints. FIU is an incredible school. It has this international community. People at FIU, they are so passionate about their research and so interested in what they are doing. I have come to incorporate it into my life goals to constantly be in an environment with people like that. Going to Oxford would allow me to be in this kind of community, and it would also allow me to learn about more perspectives and viewpoints.”

At FIU, Spencer is part of a lab headed by Alexander Mebel, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, in which she studies chemical reactions that may allow life to be conducive in space. She is a student in the Honors College and a member of various organizations on campus, including the FIU Undergraduate Research Society, as well as a student leader in the National Society of Leadership and Success.

She is a peer learning assistant, helping students in Calculus 3 with their assignments. She was selected for this year’s UN-affiliated Millennium Fellowship, which will allow her to complete a project improving financial literacy among university students and young professionals. As part of a class she took last year with chemistry and biochemistry Professor David Chatfield, she and a group of students also analyzed possible drug treatments for COVID-19.

Joni Spencer shared a poster presentation of her research at MIT

Spencer’s research specialty is computational chemistry,  a type of chemistry that utilizes computer simulation to help in solving complex problems. Her goal is to use computational chemistry to uncover innovations for sustainable development, and ultimately, to help people protect themselves in the face of climate change.

She is particularly interested in discovering ways fuel cells — cells that do not produce carbon emissions — can be introduced and adopted in technology and products (like cars) in Antigua and Barbuda and across the Caribbean, which is often devastated by natural disasters like hurricanes. These regions, she says, would especially benefit from using renewable energy.

Scientific discoveries could also open the doors to increased alternatives and infrastructure that could help the region prepare for climate events, she adds.

“I want to make sure people get the resources they need in times of crisis,” she says. Her way of helping is through science.

She believes that computational chemistry and machine learning offer a particularly powerful tool to make a difference — and to become a better chemist.

“My knowledge of chemistry has been cemented by doing computational work because you need to know the ins and outs of chemistry,” she says. “The computer doesn’t have a brain. You have to tell it what to do. In the future, I want to make sure that we can find more efficient ways of using the computer for this. As a researcher, I want to use machine learning to study sustainability.”

Being a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship is an important step in Spencer achieving her goals and launching a career of impact.

“Joni is a remarkable young scholar,” says Director of Prestigious Scholar Development Ashley Kuntz. “Her faculty and research supervisors praise her intellect, character and work ethic. We can all be very proud she is representing FIU on the international stage. This is a well-deserved recognition of Joni’s academic accomplishments and of her potential to thrive as a graduate student at Oxford.”

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