Student Spotlight: Patricia Kay ’17

Shining a Bright Light in 2016 and Looking Ahead with Clear Vision and Gratitude

Patricia Kay

As another year draws to a close, it seems appropriate to give thanks for the many blessings we have at the University of Notre Dame. Our esteemed faculty, talented staff, and exceptionally bright students give us reason to be grateful and proud to be a member of the Notre Dame family. It is through faculty and staff efforts that our students may prosper and excel, so that upon graduation, they are ready to meet the world with all of its challenges and opportunities to succeed. ND Energy is privileged to be a part of this exciting time in our students’ lives and equally delighted to share the following story of one of the many outstanding students at Notre Dame. We hope you enjoy reading it.

Patricia Kay ’17 knew that she wanted to learn about the environment when she came to Notre Dame as a first year student. Wavering between environmental and chemical engineering, she settled on chemical while adding an environmental minor. After attending an Energy Studies minor information session, she reasoned that energy was the most urgent, pervasive aspect of the environmental challenge and the one that offered the most career opportunities. She jumped in with both feet her sophomore year, joining the minor, volunteering for ND Energy’s Student Energy Board (SEB), and gaining a research position in Assistant Professor Amy Hixon’s lab.

The main attraction of the Energy Studies minor for Patricia was the variety it offered beyond technical coursework. On top of a full slate of chemical engineering topics, she was able to study both business and political aspects of the energy challenge. For her capstone credit, she spent a fall break in coal country, participating in and later returning to help lead the Center for Social Concern’s Appalachia experiential learning seminar. Seeing the situation in Appalachia first hand exposed her to the social justice issues that she feels should strongly influence all business, political, and technical decisions related to the environment. During her first immersion, an Energy Exploration sponsored by Wheeling Jesuit University, she and her group learned about the history of coal in Appalachia, met with representatives on both sides of the issue including a WV Coal Association leader and the Center for Coalfield Justice advocacy group, saw the impacts of mountain top removal and coal processing slurry ponds, and participated in service activities in the community.

One of the highlights of her academic experience has been the opportunity to work in a research lab. She learned about the many opportunities to do undergraduate research on campus her first year by attending the ND Energy sponsored Undergraduate Sustainability Research and Education Expo where faculty and students present their energy and sustainability related research. She joined Dr. Hixon’s group as a research assistant her sophomore year and has been there ever since. Her contribution has enabled her to be listed as second author on a paper that is currently under review. This year she is the recipient of ND Energy’s Slatt Scholarship, which provides a stipend for her work and the ability to present her research at the 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition in early April in San Francisco, CA. The Hixon group works on actinides, the elements near the bottom of the Periodic Table that include radioactive elements such as plutonium and uranium. Patricia’s research topic is Actinide Sorption to Aluminum (hydr)oxide Mineral Phases.

“Working in the Hixon lab was above and beyond anything I could have learned in the classroom,” said Patricia. “I received my own project assignment and was introduced to instruments that most students only see in books.” Even though she sees her work as only a tiny sliver of a huge problem, she feels a sense of accomplishment from the expertise she has gained. She enjoyed being a part of a research group and contributing to the review process. According to Dr. Hixon, "Patricia has been an excellent addition to the research group. She thinks critically about the research she is doing and how it fits into the greater context of a sustainable and secure nuclear fuel cycle."

Outside of the classroom and lab, Patricia has served on ND Energy’s Student Energy Board (SEB) for two years, most recently in a core leadership position. She enjoys planning and attending a large variety of energy-related events, from panel discussions on solar energy to creating curriculum for explaining wind power to third graders. “I really liked helping others become engaged and learn more about energy. I was able to interact with students that I probably never would have met except for our interest in energy.” One of her favorite opportunities was participating in SEB’s program “What’s It Really Like”, which enabled her to visit the lab of Dr. Prashant Kamat in the Radiation Laboratory. Her role as a core leader this past year also earned her a seat at the table for a lunch conversation with three speakers invited to present a panel on solar energy.

As Patricia looks toward her future, she feels confident about applying for industrial research and development positions, perhaps after some time for service. Whoever interviews her will be impressed with her resume and the time she dedicated to the many opportunities afforded her by ND Energy and the University of Notre Dame.


ND Energy is a University Research Center whose mission is to build a better world by creating new energy technologies and systems and educating individuals to help solve the most critical energy challenges facing our world today. For more information, visit the ND Energy website at or contact Barbara Villarosa, Business and Communications Program Director, at or 574-631-4776.