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Frontiers in
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Fall 2017

Communicating Science in the Nation’s Capital

Standing in front of top scientists, early career researchers rely on teamwork

Victoria K. Davis

David Bierman is a mechanical engineer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who recently graduated with his Ph.D. in solar thermophotovoltaics. His EFRC research experience has motivated his scientific career ambitions, and he has started his own energy company, Marigold Power, Inc.

Veronika Stelmakh is an electrical engineer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who recently graduated with her Ph.D. in photonic crystals for thermophotovoltaic applications. Veronika has since co-founded Mesodyne, LLC, which looks to commercialize thermophotovoltaic devices for portable power.

David and Veronika were among the winners of the 2017 Student and Postdoc Team Science Contest. They presented their research, Tailoring Thermal Emission for High-Performance Solar Thermophotovoltaic Devices, as representatives of the Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion (S3TEC) EFRC.

Joshua Howe is a postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology with expertise in computational theory and chemical engineering. In his future career, he plans to secure a tenured professorship in academia.

Robert Marti is a graduate student studying solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and inorganic chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. His scientific career goals are to initially go into industry, but ultimately teach at the high school level, following in the footsteps of a Ph.D. chemistry high school teacher that had once inspired him to pursue higher education in STEM.

Josh and Robert were Team Science Winners in the 2017 Student and Postdoc Team Science Contest where they presented their research, Understanding Structure and Dynamics of CO 2 Adsorbed in Open-Site Metal-Organic Frameworks, as representatives of the Center for Understanding and Control of Acid Gas-induced Evolution of Materials for Energy (UNCAGE-ME) EFRC.

Lesheng Li is a graduate student studying theoretical physical chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In his future career, he plans to secure a tenured professorship in academia.

Taylor Moot is a graduate student studying p-type dye-sensitized solar cells and materials chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Inspired by her experience with the Department of Energy and EFRC research, her scientific career goal is to work at a national laboratory.

Lesheng and Taylor were Team Science Finalists in the 2017 Student and Postdoc Team Science Contest where they presented their research, Identification and Passivation of the Defect States in NiO for Photovoltaic and Solar Fuel Applications, as representatives of the Center for Solar Fuels (UNC) EFRC.

Xin Ma is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin with expertise in optics and solid- state physics of magnetic systems. In his future career, he plans to secure a tenured professorship in academia.

Xin and Gen Yin (*unavailable for interview) were Team Science Finalists in the 2017 Student and Postdoc Team Science Contest where they presented their research, Magnetic Skyrmions in Ferromagnetic/Heavy-Metal Multi- Layers, as representatives of the Spins and Heat in Nanoscale Electronic Systems (SHINES) EFRC.

Presenting scientific research at national conferences can be nerve-wracking, especially for early career scientists. Often a young scientist prepares a talk, stands at the podium alone, and presents to a small audience. However, the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored a contest that gave early career scientists the opportunity to present their research in Washington, D.C., in a unique way.

At a meeting last summer, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows were invited to present their research as a team. They competed in the 2017 Student and Postdoc Team Science Contest. Each team of young scientists had to work together to present one high-quality talk among myriad headline talks being given by top scientists from 36 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), five Computational Materials Sciences Awards and two Energy Innovation Hubs.

In an interview, team members described what it was like standing at the podium as they communicated their research together. Gen Yin was not available for this interview.

From a pool of over 25 nominations, only 16 teams were selected to be Team Science finalists. These finalist teams were invited to the meeting in Washington, D.C., to give a team talk in the hopes of becoming one of six Team Science winners. Upon learning that their abstract qualified them to compete in the science contest as finalists, Robert Marti (Center for Understanding and Control of Acid Gas-Induced Evolution of Materials for Energy: UNCAGE-ME), Xin Ma (Spins and Heat in Nanoscale Electronic Systems: SHINES) and Lesheng Li (Center for Solar Fuels: UNC) each reacted to the news:

Robert: I was in shock. There is so much great science happening in all of the EFRCs, and to think that we were chosen over some other truly great scientist was an overwhelming feeling.

Xin: Excited and nervous, because I knew that the contest is very competitive. The teams are carefully selected from each EFRC, have done a great job with their research, and put significant efforts in preparing for the contest.

Lesheng: It felt good because it was our chance to show other EFRCs what is going on at UNC.

The team talks for the science contest were evaluated based on five criteria: 1) how well the research utilized the center resources; 2) scientific excellence; 3) integration of theory and experiment; 4) topical diversity; and 5) quality of presentation.

Taylor Moot (UNC), Veronika Stelmakh (Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center: S3TEC) and Lesheng (UNC) described the challenges they felt were unique to giving a podium talk as a team and with specific criteria in mind:

Taylor: It was stressful because you were representing the whole center, and you wanted to do well for them. Also, presenting with another person and trading a microphone may seem trivial, but when you are nervous, it does add another layer of difficulty!

Veronika: This was a co-talk. It took us a week to just wrap our heads around that because it is so unusual. I think it changed the approach in that we had to put a lot of work into a short presentation and make sure it was clear and coherent. It’s hard enough to do that when presenting your own work, so having two people created more of a challenge.

Lesheng: Previous talks I have given were all about theory only. This one was totally different. We had to switch between the theory and experiment, which was difficult.

Xin, Robert and David Bierman (S3TEC) approached the contest aspect of the talk in different ways:

Xin: I added jokes for the introduction and throughout this presentation. It allows the audience to follow better and not fall asleep.

Robert: I didn’t really think about it as a contest. I kept thinking about the best possible way to present the work that we had done in a meaningful way. It’s easy to get caught up in the details and lose the meaning of your original message.

David: The contest made me more interested in preparing a high-quality talk since I am a competitive person.

After successfully presenting their EFRC research, Xin and Veronika reflected on the feedback they received from the audience:

Xin: I made several comparisons between science and daily life, so in one question, someone referred to a slide as “the one with chili powder.” Another comment from my collaborators was “Jokes should be cut-to-a-point. They lose the audience if tedious or with extra explanation.” It was a great experience, and I will improve my future talks.

Veronika: It was great to have questions on where the research was going next because it meant that what we presented was clear and that people were excited for the future of the research. I often find, though, that people are reticent to ask questions in public forums, so the best questions are in the hallways after the talk.

The teams from S3TEC and UNCAGE-ME were two of the six top teams selected by the DOE program managers to become Team Science winners. These six teams represent the exceptional research efforts being carried out at EFRCs across the country.

While collaborative research can present challenges, especially when colleagues reside in different states, Josh Howe (UNCAGE-ME) emphasized the crucial role that the EFRC plays in enabling innovative research:

Josh: I’d like to highlight the utilization of center resources. The EFRC provided support for me to travel to Washington University in St. Louis for a week to work directly with Robert on this project, and that support was essential in achieving the research result we did.

Both Veronika and Robert expressed their gratitude to the EFRCs and to the DOE program managers for the honor of being named Team Science winners:

Veronika: I really loved that this conference was about teamwork. Over the years, it has been a great experience to be a part of the S3TEC center, working with David and many other people, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to be recognized for my work at the EFRC competition.

Robert: This is more for the project managers, I suppose, but I still wanted to say it. I don’t come from the best background, and certainly don’t have the same support system many of my friends in graduate school have. Despite my vastly different background, I was afforded the opportunity to pursue a higher degree and contribute something real to not only the scientific community, but also the world. Without the financial support from funding agencies, such as the DOE, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. I’ve grown exponentially since I’ve started graduate school. I would say that I am a much more careful thinker and that I don’t enter any situation thinking I know everything there is to know. Thank you very much; my life is much better having gone through the trials of graduate school.

Overall, Team Science finalists and winners agree that their EFRC research has helped shape and empower their future scientific career ambitions:

Robert: I’ve always had a love for science and the pursuit of knowledge. The EFRC has given me an opportunity to incorporate these aspects into my everyday life. I don’t have any scientists in my immediate family; thus, the world of research science was unexplored territory for me. With my new perspective on a life in the world of science, I plan to continue to push the scientific world forward and hopefully one day help formulate informed policy.

Josh: I’ve been doing EFRC research since 2009 with the first wave of EFRCs. I began my EFRC work in Berkeley, California, as part of the CGS (Center for Gas Separations Relevant to Clean Energy Technologies) EFRC, and the past eight years have been instrumental in shaping my perspective as a researcher. I have grown to appreciate the value of collaborative research. In the future, I plan to continue engaging in collaborations, and I can attribute that in part to my involvement with the EFRCs.

Taylor: EFRC research has shown me how important fundamental science is since it seems to be the biggest factor that controls whether practical applications and devices work or not. I am looking to focus on research like this for a future postdoctoral position.

Veronika: No matter what career path you choose, both in academia and industry, the lessons learned in this collaboration will be valuable. I truly believe that teamwork is one of the most important qualities a scientist can have, since in this day and age, rarely do we truly ever work alone.

Team Science winners and finalists give us a glimpse into the significant impact that early career scientists have in carrying out collaborative research, communicating science and facilitating the overall success of the EFRCs across the nation. Investing in the next generation of leaders in science, raising the bar for research excellence and building strategic, interdisciplinary collaborations all contribute to the ways in which the United States is committed to leading the world in making energy breakthroughs and creating better energy technologies.

About the author(s):

  • Victoria K. Davis is an inorganic chemistry Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Victoria studies photoelectrochemistry at the semiconductor-electrolyte interface of photoanodes for dye-sensitized solar cells, and she is a member of the Center for Solar Fuels (UNC), an Energy Frontier Research Center. She returns to Pasadena, California, every summer to collaborate with the Electrochemical Technologies Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.