Climate change is at its heart a chemistry problem — currently, the largest source of energy used today is from the burning of fossil fuels.

Karen I. Goldberg ’83

Above photo: Karen I. Goldberg ’83, P’22 talking science with former University of Pennsylvania graduate student Sophie Rubashkin ’15. Rubashkin is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. 

Karen Goldberg

Karen I. Goldberg ’83, Barnard Board of Trustees member and University of Pennsylvania’s (Penn) Vagelos Professor in Energy Research, knows well the real-world questions that chemistry can answer. For example, the Global Methane Pledge initiative launched at COP 26, aimed at rapidly reducing emissions of the potent greenhouse chemical methane, will require new practices to capture and remediate methane emissions from multiple fronts ranging across industrial, waste, and agricultural sectors.

Goldberg’s own research focuses on the development of efficient and sustainable chemical processes to produce our chemicals and fuels. As Penn’s inaugural director of the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology (VIEST) — which uses science and technology research to address society’s energy needs while aiming toward a more sustainable future — the professor of chemistry leads a research group, which involves mentoring undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral research associates. 

To celebrate chemistry during the Barnard Year of Science, Goldberg will share her in-depth knowledge with Barnard students and the wider community, via a two-day, on-campus lecture event that will address renewable energy sources from different angles.

“The College couldn’t be happier to invite our alumna and Board of Trustees member Karen Goldberg ’83 back to campus to speak with our current chemistry students and the entire community, especially during Barnard Year of Science,” said President Sian Leah Beilock. “Karen is an incredible example of the College’s mission to educate and elevate more women in the field of STEM and sustainability, and I have been consistently impressed by her commitment to rigorous research with a real-world impact.”


On November 18, Goldberg will lead a public talk, “Developing Alternatives to Oil as Feedstocks for Our Chemicals and Liquid Fuels,” to discuss the path that led to the nation’s current energy landscape, what’s on the horizon, and the exciting strategies that scientists are investigating to prepare chemicals and fuels in the future using natural gas and carbon dioxide in place of oil. And on November 19, Goldberg will dive deeper into the world of chemistry with the lecture “Molecular Oxygen as a Reagent in Late Transition Metal Organometallic Chemistry,” exclusively presented for students and faculty from the Barnard and Columbia chemistry departments, to discuss the kinetic and mechanistic studies of the reactions of oxygen with various organometallic complexes. 

“Many of the industrial chemical transformations that are key to making the materials society relies on — from plastics, to detergents, to pharmaceuticals — use chemistry that was developed in the middle of the last century. These processes often use toxic, environmentally unfriendly reagents and require a lot of energy. My group is working on new ways of doing this same chemistry but using organometallic compounds as highly selective catalysts and oxygen from the air as a clean and green reagent.”

An esteemed voice in the fields of chemistry and sustainability, Goldberg served as director of the first National Science Foundation-funded Phase II Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI), and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. June 2022, Goldberg was selected as the 2023 William H. Nichols Medalist, which recognizes "outstanding contributions in the field of chemistry and is the first award authorized by the American Chemical Society." 

Barnard chemistry lab

“The Chemistry Department is thrilled to host professor Karen Goldberg — an international leader in developing chemistries to address the world’s energy needs — as our Barnard Year of Science featured chemistry speaker,” said Rachel Narehood Austin, Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry. “Professor Goldberg is a consummate chemist with deep expertise in developing ways to make and break chemical bonds. And she is a Barnard Chemistry Department alumna of whom we are immensely proud.”

Returning to Barnard for this two-day event during the Barnard Year of Science feels especially timely and important to Goldberg, who was a chemistry major at the College and one of six new members to join the Barnard Board of Trustees last year. Even at Penn, where she holds an endowed professorship, the spirit of Barnard remains close — her title was named after fellow alumna Diana T. Vagelos ’55 and her husband Roy.

“I am very excited about the Barnard Year of Science and the renovation and addition to Altschul Hall,” said Goldberg. “What a great opportunity to celebrate Barnard’s past, present, and future successes in science and in training the next generation of women in science! I always consider an invitation to speak at Barnard, and to interact with Barnard students and faculty, a great honor and privilege.” 

And the community is excited to hear from Goldberg, who will connect the multiple dots across the fields of chemistry, climate awareness, and sustainable energy. “Climate change is at its heart a chemistry problem — currently, the largest source of energy used today is from the burning of fossil fuels,” Goldberg explained. “Burning, or combustion, of fossil fuels is a chemical reaction that produces CO2. CO2 and the other gases in our atmosphere that contribute to climate change are all chemicals. Thus, chemists, working in collaboration with engineers and other scientists, will be key in finding viable solutions to mitigating climate change.”

Provost and dean of the faculty Linda A. Bell, who will share introductory remarks at the November 18 event, noted her enthusiasm. “We are thrilled to welcome Professor Karen Goldberg back to Barnard. Karen has had a distinguished academic career in chemistry and will speak to our community about the critical intersection of chemistry and environmental sustainability,” she said. Provost Bell, also the Claire Tow Professor of Economics, added, “Karen is an institutional leader, and her efforts have focused on developing sustainable sources of energy and materials with an awareness of the economic implications of our choices.” 

To learn more about Goldberg’s upcoming lectures and to RSVP, visit the Barnard Year of Science site here.

text saying "Year of Science" surrounded by various scientific paraphernalia, such as beakers, gears, and nuclear symbols