Students try out energy research while classes are out
Jennifer L. Esbenshade

Timothy Espiritu (left) training Greyson Voigt (right) on proper use of the transfer stage for research in Spins and Heat in Nanoscale Electronic Systems (SHINES).


Caroline Medino (left) and Kelly Balzereit (right) on their last day of summer work for Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation (CLSF).

While school was out for summer, many undergraduate students spent time learning as they performed scientific research at Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) around the country.

Why did these students choose to spend their summer break working in a research lab?

Many students chose to spend their summer working to gain first-hand experience in a research laboratory. House Miao from the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation (CLSF) was tired of professors teaching concepts using simple models in introductory classes, only to modify the model's complexity in a higher-level course. "The experimental outcome is the only standard in chemistry," said Miao. "The best way to learn chemistry is to enter a research lab and work on experiments."

Arianne Zaiyani, Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy), found that while working on the synthesis of mimics of enzyme subclusters, she loved the discussions with her mentors about the project – everything from theory, to recent literature, to how to improve the experiments. "I wanted to learn more; as much as I could get my hands on," said Zaiyani. "Working in the lab and the troubleshooting that goes into solving any unforeseen problems were great mental gymnastics for my brain."

Others use the summer research experience to determine where their career path should lead: towards a job or into graduate school. Zhexi Lin at the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) found that the work he wants to do requires more education, and he's signing up to enter Columbia University for graduate school this fall.

Caroline Medino, CLSF, realized after this summer that research was not something that she wanted to pursue. Even though she enjoyed the people she was working with and learning the science, the laboratory work did not spark her interest. However, her experience working for an EFRC did lead her to want to pursue a career in renewable energy or biofuels.

Hands-on skills prove a strong benefit. Regardless of why the students chose to do research, all have found many benefits both in the short and long term. "Doing research has provided me with new knowledge, skills, opportunities, and goals that would greatly benefit me in the future," said Timothy Espiritu of Spins and Heat in Nanoscale Electronic Systems (SHINES). "I learned more science doing research than I did in any class," said David Zdunek of Argonne-Northwestern University Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER). "The skills and techniques I learned will definitely help as I pursue my Ph.D. in chemistry."

Overall, the undergraduate research experience in EFRCs provides an outlet for students to explore various fields and specialties of science and engineering, become aware of cutting-edge energy research, experience working in interdisciplinary collaborations, and gain hands-on experience learning laboratory skills and techniques.

Several EFRC undergraduate research alumni – Mathew Fox (Center for Electrochemical Energy Science, CEES), David Zdunek (ANSER), and Zhexi Lin (Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, CCEI) – expressed one common idea. After reflecting on their own experience doing research, they all strongly recommended that every undergraduate student in a science or engineering field try research. They shared that hands-on research in the laboratory will provide a new and unique way to learn and see science. Hands-on work gives opportunities to improve and master both problem-solving skills and laboratory techniques.

While working at EFRCs this summer, undergraduate students, from different backgrounds and in different EFRCs, developed their own ideas of where U.S. energy research will be directed in the future. Many agree that clean energy production, renewable energy, and efficient storage will be vital research areas to develop and expand for a sustainable future. Some believe biofuels are the future of alternative energies, while others lean towards solar, and still others believe nuclear energy is the future. Several conclude that moving towards efficient energy use and changing lifestyles will be necessary for a sustainable energy future. Regardless of their view, all are leaving the summer research experience, heading back to classes, thinking ahead to the future of energy in the United States, and better informed of the current state of energy research.


Thank you to all the undergraduates, past and present, who shared their experience for this article:

Current Students: Matthew Ho (CES); Kelly Balzereit, Caroline Medino, and House Miao (CLSF); Greyson Voigt and Timothy Espiritu (SHINES); Arianne Zaiyani (BETCy); Caroline Reilly (UNC); and Jim Kennedy (CCEI)

EFRC Undergraduate Alumni: Mathew Fox (CEES), David Zdunek (ANSER), and Zhexi Lin (CCEI)

About the author(s):

Jennifer L. Esbenshade is a Ph.D. candidate studying materials chemistry under the advisement of Andrew Gewirth at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a member of the Center for Electrochemical Energy Science (CEES). Her research focuses on analyzing and modifying electrode surfaces in lithium-ion battery systems.