Phil Long

Learning the Lessons of Photosynthesis

By Stacy Kish on August 4, 2010

Fellow: Phil Long
Photo Credit: David Christopher
Hometown: Spokane, WA
Undergrad: University of Portland
Graduate school: University of Chicago
Keywords: Department of Energy, Office of Science, Graduate Fellow program, Photosynthesis, Solar

Green plants and many bacteria efficiently capture the Sun’s energy during photosynthesis. “The energy absorbed by plants is funneled towards creating stable energy sources, such as sugars,” begins Phil Long, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and a DOE Office of Science Graduate Fellow. “In the big picture [photosynthesis] is a simple question, but when you get into the details it gets nasty and complicated.”

The basic science has captivated Long, but the societal impact of the work motivates him. “Ultimately, I would like to see this basic science translate into more efficient solar technologies.”

Plants and photosynthetic bacteria find ways to use almost all of the absorbed energy. “If we can figure this out at the molecular level, we can figure out ways to develop synthetics to use this,” continues Long.

Long’s research has him place one foot in the biological world and one foot in the physics world. “I have to raise the bacteria to isolate the complexes inside the bacteria to study. I probe these systems with lasers to figure out how they work.”

Long became interested in this field when doing policy work at the National Academy of Sciences. “The first inclination that this was exciting was sitting in on meetings where top physicists and biologists talked about emerging fields of research,” said Long. The presentations captivated Long and propelled him to pursue this field for his doctoral studies. “When you see what biological systems are composed of they are beautiful and complex,” he said. “I was taken by how we can learn from and mimic these systems with the physical sciences."

Long concludes, “Science is so interdisciplinary. People feed off what other people do. As a graduate fellow, being around the cream of the crop and having access to DOE national laboratories will be fantastic.”

Stacy Kish is a Science Writer with the Office of Science.