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April 2012

The Student Face of the EFRC: Interview with Undergraduate Researcher Gene Nolis

Jessica Morrison

Gene Nolis

If you ask Gene Nolis why he became a scientist, he’ll tell you with complete sincerity that it’s because he was once intrigued with the stereotype of a scientist.

“As a kid, you start hearing of Einstein, you see pictures of this guy with unkempt hair and hear that he was a genius,” says Nolis. “I wanted to become that; I wanted to become what people thought was a crazy, mad scientist.”

I met Gene at the Energy Frontier Research Center Summit and Forum held last May in Washington, D.C., and I can assure you that he is far from mad. Gene is an undergraduate student at Binghamton University, a State University of New York. A senior chemistry major who participates in undergraduate research through the Northeastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage Energy Frontier Research Center, Gene took the time to chat with me about his passion for science, his work within the EFRC, and his future plans.

JM: What led you to become a chemistry major? Did you think about any other major?

GN: I was a biology major, but then I realized that I didn’t like to memorize everything. I did better in chemistry than biology, I think because, in my experience, chemistry presented more analytical thinking and problem solving. I liked that chemistry always tested you. No matter how much of an expert you thought you were, there was always some problem that could stump you, at least for a little while.

JM: Tell me about the work that you’ve been doing within your EFRC.

GN: I look into the structural stability of mixed-metal olivine phosphates. These are a commercially available material for lithium rechargeable batteries. I perform syntheses; I have run calorimetry experiments as well as x-ray diffraction and magnetic studies. I try to understand, through in situ and ex situ techniques, what happens as these compounds are heated. In the real world, you want to be sure that your battery material isn’t decomposing at high temperatures.

JM: As a student, what has the EFRC experience been like for you?

GN: I have worked with researchers from other institutions because we collaborate through the EFRC. I’ve been able to gain exposure to materials that I had never worked with before and techniques that I had never used before. It’s tough for an undergrad because time is so limited. It’s hard to take full advantage of the EFRC, but the learning experience gained from being able to collaborate and the networking experiences are really invaluable.

JM: You were on the Frontiers in Energy Research newsletter board, so you must be interested in communicating science. Can you tell me a little more about your interest?

GN: I wanted more writing experience outside of typical coursework, and I wanted the experience of writing for an editor. I also wanted to gain some exposure to research outside of [lithium batteries]. Now I’ve written articles about solar cells and a different type of battery. Because of the EFRC newsletter, I’ve been able to gain a broad understanding of the different types of research that go on in chemistry and materials science.

JM: I’m sure you’re getting this a lot right now, as a senior, but what are your plans after graduation?

GN: I’m looking at Ph.D. programs in the United States and a European program called Materials for Energy Storage and Conversion. It’s a Master’s program where I would travel internationally, complete a research internship almost anywhere in the world, and then move into Ph.D. studies or industry research. It is very interdisciplinary…a materials science degree blending physics, chemistry and engineering.

JM: I know very well that your opinions can change once you start a graduate program, but right now, what would you like to do after graduate school?

GN: I think that I would like to use my skills to go into industry for a while, but ultimately I would like to be a professor. Not at a large-scale research institution, but in a place where I could have really close interaction with students, where I can help them to have a firm understanding of chemistry concepts. I have found this situation to be a much more effective learning experience.

If you would like to more about the energy research that Gene is doing, visit the Northeastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage EFRC.

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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.