‘A better, more equitable future’: program advances diversity and materials science

In June, Jacob Som published a paper examining the effectiveness of nickel oxide as an electrocatalyst to produce hydrogen as an energy carrier – research he hopes can help develop sustainable energy solutions for the US and his home country of Ghana.

“This technology is already on the market, but it’s expensive because the commercial electrocatalysts used, like platinum, are expensive,” said Som, a graduate student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) who is conducting the research conducted a collaboration with Cornell supported by the National Science Foundation. “Our research is trying to develop inexpensive materials to do the same. I hope my research will pave the way to develop these types of technologies and make them more viable and accessible to all.”

Over the past year, students and faculty from Cornell and NC A&T have partnered on a research project focused on two common goals: increasing diversity in the field of materials science and transforming the way the world creates and stores energy .

Collaborative Research and Education in Energy Materials (CREEM) is co-led by Dhananjay Kumar, professor in NC A&T’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and principal investigator on the project, and Frank Wise, MS ’86, Ph.D. ’88, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor at the College of Engineering and director of the Cornell Center for Materials Research. The project is funded by an NSF Partnerships for Research in Education and Materials Seed Grant.

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“Our collaboration with NC A&T undergraduate, graduate and faculty members aims to build productive relationships and drive the systemic, institutional changes we need to make for a brighter and fairer future,” said Wise. “We are learning a lot from each other, which will clearly translate into excellent science and greater diversity in materials research.”

NC A&T has a long history of supporting black students and graduates more African American engineers than any other college or university in the United States. Kumar and his colleagues at NC A&T’s College of Engineering have developed a thriving research program exploring low-dimensional materials with transformative potential in alternative energy production and storage.

Cornell is a dense center for materials science expertise and energy technology innovation. CCMR, one of 19 NSF-funded materials research science and engineering centers in the country, is home to some of the most powerful tools available for designing and testing innovative materials with finely tuned properties, such as Efforts.

In October, three graduate students from Kumar’s lab visited Cornell to learn more about the capabilities of the CCMR facilities and to meet with Cornell faculty and students involved in the collaboration. Now, members of Kumar’s lab send materials they made at NC A&T to their staff at Cornell, who characterize the materials using the facilities at CCMR.

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“I got so much good data in such a short amount of time,” said Kaushik Sarkar, a graduate student at NC A&T. “We have worked with other universities before, but this relationship is different. It feels like a friendship. Cornell is the best partner in the world.”

Schuyler Shi, a Cornell graduate student specializing in atomic-resolution electron microscopy, is in regular communication with Sarkar and other graduate students at NC A&T. “This collaboration has taught me how to make this material with nanoarray structure [for imaging]says Shi, referring to materials Sarkar produced in search of a base metal alternative for energy storage technologies. “None of our group members have ever worked with samples like this.”

Brooke Smith, an undergraduate student at NC A&T, works in Kumar’s lab as part of the collaboration and traveled to Cornell this summer. In the lab of Jin Suntivich, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell Engineering, Smith developed experiments with ruthenium oxide thin films using CCMR’s sprawling, five-foot-tall magnetron sputtering deposition system.

“Really, Brooke taught me how to sputter,” said Austin Reese, a Cornell graduate student who supervised Smith over the summer. “She learned everything because I kept asking her questions I had no idea about and she said, ‘You know, I don’t know either. I’ll find out.’”

Smith presented her findings in regular meetings with Suntivich and other members of her subgroup. “I’ve learned to think like a researcher,” says Smith. “Jin asked me, ‘Why did you do that?’ And first I would say, ‘I don’t know. Because I was told.’ But he insisted that as a researcher, I shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. “You must ask every question,” he said. He made me curious. It helped me a lot because now I can explain my project really well.”

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Sarkar, Som and a third graduate student, Manosi Roy, are preparing to defend their dissertation projects and graduate this fall.

In May 2023, Smith will graduate from Spelman College and NC A&T, respectively, from a five-year dual major in mathematics and mechanical engineering. She is eager to continue the research she has delved into this year.

“I want to see how far I can go with thin film,” she said. “It seems such a cool field. How can something so tiny be used for so many different things? With the knowledge I’m getting from these research experiences, I’m now wondering, are there other applications? Can I apply this technology to something in our everyday lives that we haven’t even thought about? Yes, alternative energy, absolutely! But what else? I want to be a part of this discovery.”

J. Edward Anthony is a writer for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

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