A male graduate student in an MIT sweatshirt stands in front of a coastal vista.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Will Howland

Categories: Students

Chemistry Graduate Student Will Howland describes his research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.

Originally from the Charlotte, North Carolina area, Will Howland came to MIT in the Fall of 2017. As a member of Professor Yogesh Surendranath‘s group, Will’s inorganic research is focused on electrochemistry. The inherent spatial constraint of reactivity to the surface of the electrode in electrocatalysis places a premium on the surface-area normalized activity of the electrocatalyst. To increase the efficiency of electrochemical systems, be they electrolysis cells or fuel cells, the focus is generally on increasing the intrinsic turnover frequency or density of active sites on a surface, but such efforts have so far failed to provide effective alternatives to precious metal catalysts for such technologically critical reactions as oxygen reduction. A less active catalytic material based on earth-abundant elements can be used with high surface area to achieve the same extrinsic activity. Exceptionally high surface area can be achieved using molecular mediators to ferry redox equivalents from a primary electrode to numerous isolated catalyst particles. The driving of redox reactions on heterogeneous catalysts with molecular mediators represents an intellectually interesting interface between surface chemistry and molecular chemistry and Will’s work is centered around developing the understanding of this paradigm through the application of an electrochemical perspective.

As the subject of April 2019’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Will shares the invention he feels doesn’t get enough attention, the thing he most looks forward to about the next decade, the themed hotel he would open, and more!

  1. Where is the most interesting place you’ve been?
    Probably the tallest observation deck in the world on the 121st floor of Shanghai Tower. View’s wild.
  2. How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
    Electrochemistry represents to me an area that heavily leverages my knowledge of molecular chemistry while simultaneously being deeply confusing in its combination of surface science, mass transport, and strong electric fields. I like having one foot on solid ground and the other balancing all those conceptual plates.
  3. What invention doesn’t get a lot of love, but has greatly improved the world?
    Can tabs are really quite clever and I for one appreciate not needing to have a sharp can piercer on my keychain. Sounds uncomfortable.
  4. What movie, picture, or video always makes you laugh no matter how often you watch it?
    The Pizza Delivery episode of Sponge Bob. A true classic.
  5. What’s something common from your childhood that will seem strange to future generations?
    Asking parents for permission to go online to play Flash games since doing so tied up the phone line.
  6. If you built a themed hotel, what would the theme be and what would the rooms look like?
    It would be subtly yet profoundly haunted. I would buy an older building and spruce it up to be a nice, totally normal place to say while also installing a hidden speaker system in the walls. None of this will be advertised, of course, and the “haunting” will always be kept just subtle enough to maintain plausible deniability. The ultimate goal is to convince the guys from Ghost Adventures to do an episode there. Also, I want to test how haunted a room can be before the guest feels the need to mention that aspect of the experience in customer reviews.
  7. If money and practicality weren’t a problem, what would be the most interesting way to get around town?
    If I could, I would always walk everywhere. Do anything else and you miss the texture of the city.
  8. What food do you crave most often?
    Hamburgers. I didn’t know how important they were to me until I travelled outside the states and couldn’t for the life of me find a good old-fashioned, simple hamburger.
  9. If you had an app that showed three stats about any person you looked at, what three stats would you want it to show?
    -Most-listened-to song
    -Total lifetime steps taken
  10. What is your secret talent?
    It’s a work in progress, but playing bass guitar.
  11. As a child, what did you think would be awesome about being an adult, but isn’t as awesome as you thought it would be?
    Getting to stay up as late as I want. I cannot handle this power.
  12. What job doesn’t exist now but will exist in the future?
    “Crowded ship to Mars” onboard conflict resolution expert.
  13. What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
    Having a dog. Hands down.
  14. What sport could you play the longest in a televised game, without anyone discovering you aren’t a professional athlete?
    I could maybe pass for an outfielder in baseball until a ball came to my side of the field. There’s no sport I could pass as an athlete in while actually *doing* anything.
  15. An epic feast is held in your honor – what’s on the table?
    An enormous quantity of steak and an even more enormous volume of fine beer. Everyone drinks from massive German beer steins.
  16. What would be the scariest monster you could imagine?
    A lumbering humanoid mass composed entirely of roaches.
  17. What is the most heartwarming thing you’ve ever seen?
    My yellow lab back home is a real brat most of the time and a total peanut butter junky, but when he’s sleepy he likes to sleep on people’s laps and it’s very precious.
  18. What is the darkest movie you’ve ever seen?
    Oldboy. Not for the faint of heart, on oh so many levels, but really great. 10/10 permanently traumatizing.
  19. What one thing do you really want but can’t afford?
    A house with a large lawn for a veritable pack of dogs.
  20. What irrational fear do you have?
    Roaches. I have no issues with any other type of arthropod–spiders, house centipedes, silverfish, whatever, those are fine, but I loathe roaches. And now I’ve lost my appetite for dinner…

Many thanks to Will for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!