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Shining Stars of Solar: Meet Three SunShot Postdoctoral Award Recipients Who Are Making a Difference

March 14, 2014 - 6:38pm

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Photovoltaic arrays at the SunEdison facility at SolarTAC in Aurora, Colorado. Photovoltaics are just one of many clean energy technologies participants of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Postdoctoral Research Award Program work on. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Photovoltaic arrays at the SunEdison facility at SolarTAC in Aurora, Colorado. Photovoltaics are just one of many clean energy technologies participants of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Postdoctoral Research Award Program work on. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Are you a recent Ph.D. graduate with an interest in solar energy? Even if your background is in social sciences or computer science, you can play a big role in helping the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) tackle some of America’s biggest energy challenges.  This year, the EERE Postdoctoral Research Award Program offers recent Ph.D. recipients the opportunity to conduct applied solar energy research and development at universities, national laboratories, and other research facilities.  

Research topics sponsored by EERE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, in support of the SunShot Initiative, vary from applying behavioral science insights to solar energy deployment, to using big data to break down market barriers such as soft costs, to innovative material sciences research focusing on photovoltaics or concentrating solar power.  The approximately five selected researchers will help advance the SunShot Initiative goal to make solar energy technologies cost competitive with conventional energy sources by 2020. After the two-year program is complete, awardees are well-suited for full-time faculty or research positions in their fields.  

Learn about the SunShot experience from three former postdoctoral participants below, check out more on the program, and apply online before April 30. 
 

Dr. Shane Ardo

Shane Ardo
Years participating in the EERE Postdoctoral Research Award Program: 2011 - 2013
Year of Ph.D. graduation: 2010
School: Johns Hopkins University (for Ph.D.); California Institute of Technology (for postdoctoral)
Current employer: University of California, Irvine
Title: Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, with a joint appointment in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science
 
How would you describe your experience as an EERE postdoctoral awardee?
Exciting! Being able to take ownership of a project and decide what constitutes its successes and failures is very rewarding and empowering. Also, having frequent deadlines and milestones prepares postdoctoral scholars for what it is like to have other grants through EERE and ARPA-E. The first-hand experience with the time and effort required in the laboratory to meet challenging milestones has helped me greatly in preparing subsequent proposals for EERE and ARPA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy].
 
What was the focus of your postdoc research? Did you have any major findings?
The focus of my postdoctoral research was on integrated devices for solar fuels. Solar fuels devices are akin to photovoltaics (solar cells), except instead of light being converted to electricity in an external circuit, the photo-initiated separated charges are immediately used to drive reversible chemical reactions. Specifically, I fabricated arrays of silicon microwires, embedded in a proton-exchange membrane, which upon illumination by sunlight would drive the reduction of protons to hydrogen gas concomitant with the oxidation of iodide to triiodide. The electrochemical potential energy stored in hydrogen could in theory be released to perform useful work by oxidation accompanied by triiodide reduction in a redox flow battery.
 
What are you doing today? 
Today, I am leading a research group of eight at the University of California, Irvine. We are investigating thin-film photovoltaics, solar seawater desalination, and grid-scale energy conversion, storage, and usage. My group consists of undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars who have interests and backgrounds spanning laser spectroscopy, materials science, chemical engineering, surface chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic synthesis, and numerical modeling and simulation. 
 
Do you think your EERE postdoc award played a part in preparing you for this position, or in making you more qualified for the job?
Without a doubt the EERE Postdoctoral Research Award helped to better prepare me for my current position! Having had the opportunity to take ownership of my own research project and research directions, as well as ensure milestones were met and reports were submitted in a timely manner, will surely assist me in meeting demands of future EERE funding. In addition, the breadth of my postdoctoral experience, in terms of being exposed to the intricacies of various renewable energy technologies and having the opportunity to meet experts from many fields during annual Postdoctoral Research Awardee meetings, has made me much more qualified to lead such a diverse research group. My broad knowledge base and large contact list are helpful when performing cross-cutting scientific research. In addition, I've even instituted a version of the EERE 80/20 Innovation Project into my group's current research portfolio.
 
What advice would you give to students who are considering applying for an EERE postdoc award?
Apply! And, at the outset think critically about your milestones because although it is wise to have lofty targets, they must be reachable; reach high, but not too high. Take advantage of this phenomenal opportunity to network and meet experts in the renewable energy arena.
 

Dr. Sarah Cowan

Sarah Cowan
Years participating in the EERE Postdoctoral Research Award Program: 2011- 2013
Year of Ph.D. graduation: 2011
School: University of California, Santa Barbara, Materials Science and Engineering
Current employer: National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Title: Scientist
 
How would you describe your experience as an EERE postdoctoral awardee?
The EERE postdoctoral award was an excellent bridge between my graduate research experience and work as an independent scientist. As an independently funded researcher at my host facility, NREL, I was able to direct my own research and to develop collaborations with advice from my mentor, Dr. Dana Olson. The facilities and collaborations with researchers at NREL and with NREL's research centers have been fantastic.
 
What was the focus of your postdoc research? Did you have any major findings?
A single polymer-based solar cell absorbs only a narrow fraction of the solar spectrum, so creating a stack of cells (a multijunction), each chemically tuned to absorb a different portion of the solar spectrum, and is one obvious path to higher efficiency necessary for terawatt-scale implementation. The processing challenges in creating such a stack had not been systematically addressed, with the result that published research remained largely irreproducible. Moreover, the all-important materials physics of the “tunnel junction” layer, named the recombination layer in organic solar cell research, which electrically mates one cell in the stack to the next, had previously been unstudied. In my research, I developed stable high efficiency multijunction polymer solar cells based on the first systematic study of recombination and materials properties in the recombination layer.
 
What are you doing today? Do you think your EERE postdoc award played a part in preparing you for this position, or in making you more qualified for the job?
Today, I am working as a full-time employed scientist at the National Renewable Energy Lab. The EERE postdoctoral work at NREL enabled me to make contacts, develop ideas, apply for funding, and interview effectively at NREL.
 
What advice would you give to students who are considering applying for an EERE postdoc award?
Postdoctoral research applications are a valuable opportunity to apply for funding for the first time in your professional career. Refining your idea for a research project into a one or two page summary is not only an exercise in writing clearly and concisely, but also a way to identify the truly important aspects of your project. The EERE postdoc award is more technically-driven than similar available awards, and allows you direct access to program managers in the Department of Energy. Their advice, and the guidance of your mentor, is invaluable in preparing for funding and executing your own research projects.
 

Dr. Neil Dasgupta

Neil Dasgupta

Years participating in the EERE Postdoctoral Research Award Program: 2012-2013
Year of Ph.D. graduation: 2011
School: Stanford University (Ph.D.); University of California, Berkeley (for postdoc)
Employer: University of Michigan
Title: Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering
 
How would you describe your experience as an EERE postdoctoral awardee?
My experience as an EERE postdoctoral awardee was extremely valuable to my professional and personal development.  The opportunity to join a group in a different field than my formal educational background (chemistry vs. mechanical engineering) helped to broaden my perspective on how to think critically about materials-related energy problems.  I was able to bring in my background and experimental expertise to provide a new skill-set to the group, and learn many new hands-on experimental techniques, both in fabrication and characterization.  Beyond broadening my technical expertise, I learned a lot about how to think about the same energy problems from a different angle, which was greatly enriched by my interactions with my research mentor and co-workers at UC Berkeley.  My innovation project, which was to develop new energy-related coursework at Berkeley allowed me to interface with faculty and students from other parts of the university, and develop my teaching skills in interdisciplinary education.  I also met many other colleagues in the energy field through conference presentations and the EERE postdoctoral award annual meetings, which set up the opportunity for future collaborations and helped me to establish a presence in the overall research community.
 
What was the focus of your postdoc research? Did you have any major findings?
My research focused on nanowire photovoltaics based on earth-abundant materials and low-cost processing.  Specifically, we developed scalable processes for fabricating core-shell nanowire devices for solar energy conversion.  My approach focused on the use of Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) to precisely control the core-shell material dimensions, allowing for a quantitative exploration of material thickness phenomena including light absorption and charge separation.  We developed fully functional photovoltaic and photoelectrochemical devices at the nanowire array and single-nanowire levels, to provide fundamental insights into the potential advantages of the nanowire geometry for solar energy conversion.
 
Do you think your EERE postdoc award played a part in preparing you for this position, or in making you more qualified for the job?
The EERE postdoctoral award played a critical role in enabling me to pursue my dream of becoming a professor at an excellent research institution.  Having postdoctoral experience allowed me to broaden my portfolio of publications and content for faculty interviews, and helped me to develop my abilities to explain my research to a wider audience.  The professional networking opportunities afforded by this program also allowed me to meet people that helped me to succeed along my path to an academic position, and will continue to be highly valuable in the next stage of my career.
 
What advice would you give to students who are considering applying for an EERE postdoc award?
Be ambitious and innovative in your goals and research project.  Do not be afraid to propose challenging research, as this unique program will allow you to pursue high-risk, high-reward research that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish.  Also, seek opportunities that are outside of your immediate expertise, it will help you to broaden your skill-set and perspective for future research endeavors.
 

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