Research assistants at energy’s cutting edge

January 31, 2017

MIT graduate students working in energy conduct widely varied research projects — from experiments in fundamental chemistry to surveys of human behavior — but they share the common benefit of gaining hands-on work experience while helping to move the needle toward a low-carbon future.

“You learn about a lot of wonderful things in theory, in reference books, but you never really get a feel for [research] unless you’re actually involved in it,” says Srinivas Subramanyam, a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering whose work as a research assistant (RA) focuses on developing a lubricant-impregnated surface that may one day keep oil and gas pipelines free of clogs. “Having a research assistantship has been a very good experience.”

“I see this as a first step in a long-term research agenda that I hope to continue in my academic career,” says J. Cressica Brazier, a PhD candidate in urban studies and planning who is developing a mobile carbon footprinting tool to gauge personal energy consumption. Brazier says this RA work has given her a variety of skills — from statistical modeling to team building — that will help her continue to research low-carbon urban development in the years ahead.

The academic track isn’t the only option for well-trained RAs, however. Qing Liu, a PhD candidate in chemistry and a 2016-2017 Shell-MIT Energy Fellow, says he also feels qualified to work as a data scientist, energy analyst, or consultant. “I think the expertise I’ve gained from the research assistantship definitely helped broaden my career choices,” says Liu, whose research centers on a catalytic process that converts airborne pollutants to fuels.

Research assistants are paid to conduct research under the supervision of a faculty advisor, and they often pursue novel investigations of their own design — in many cases leading to doctoral theses and other peer-reviewed publications at the cutting edge of their fields. For this reason, RAs play a crucial role in moving the world toward a low-carbon energy system, says Antje Danielson, director of education at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

“RAs are the worker bees of the research projects, and they are the people who produce the data and the prototypes that will then lead to discovery and innovation, so they’re very valuable members of the energy innovation ecosystem. They are the future,” says Danielson, noting that Brazier, Liu, and Subramanyam were all supported by MITEI funding. “Meanwhile, they learn lab skills, analytical skills, and if this is their thesis project, they really learn how to analyze a specific topic and write up their findings.”

Making a difference

For Brazier, Liu, and Subramanyam — just three of the more than 2,500 graduate students who work as research assistants and research trainees at MIT — making progress toward a low-carbon energy system is a significant motivator.

“The only way I get motivated is if I know this is something that has the potential to make a difference. Abstract problems don’t really drive me,” Subramanyam says. Therefore, he focuses his research on addressing the range of problems caused by the deposition of materials on surfaces — for example, ice buildup on airplane wings, wind turbine blades, overhead powerlines, etc., and scale buildup in gas pipelines, geothermal power plants, and water heaters. “Having that end goal in mind — especially being aware that this is a product that’s important to MITEI — that keeps me working on the problem.”

During his research assistantship, Subramanyam succeeded in developing a surface treatment that significantly reduces scale buildup by combining two strategies: changing the morphology of the surface material and adding a coating. The resulting lubricant-impregnated surface promises to improve efficiency in the oil and gas industry by addressing productivity losses due to scale fouling, Subramanyam says.

Improving the efficiency of existing energy systems is also central to Liu’s research, which examines the fundamental catalytic chemistry behind the production of natural gas and liquid fuels using greenhouse gases and airborne pollutants. Liu’s work holds promise for the development of more efficient Fischer-Tropsch catalysts, a critical step in the attainment of carbon neutrality. “I definitely feel I’m helping to make the planet greener,” Liu says.

Brazier takes a different approach to energy research: She explores how human behavior impacts the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change. “We need tools to moderate or mitigate how people use the increasing convenience and comfort that comes with new technologies,” Brazier says. She says she hopes the mobile application she is developing will provide individuals with feedback that will motivate greener lifestyle choices.

Gaining practical skills

Whatever specific research RAs focus on, along the way they learn to collaborate, communicate, and persuade others about the validity of their ideas. They also learn project management and how to think systematically about open-ended problems, says Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering and Subramanyam’s advisor. “They learn a lot of practicalities of how to work in the real world,” he says.

“The scientific method, you first experience it once you start working in the lab yourself, confirming and rejecting potential solutions,” Subramanyam says. “You are pushing the boundaries of knowledge, trying to do things no one has ever done.”

Teamwork is critical, says Liu, noting that his research involves complex and specialized instrumentation that is very tough to operate alone. “There are two to three people on the same machine, working very closely with each other … so it’s really important to us to have good teamwork,” he says. “That’s something I couldn’t learn from class.”

Working with diverse researchers — including faculty members, postdocs, and fellow RAs from a variety of disciplines — rounds out the RAs’ educational experience, the students say. “In terms of really applying statistical tools, I learned more from one RA than I ever did from my sequence of quantitative methods courses,” Brazier says.

Ultimately, the RA experience can be transformative. “They come out of undergrad exposed to many subjects, but they haven’t really gotten their hands wet in a lab,” Varanasi says, noting that within a few years he sees major changes. “They become professionals.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2016 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.