Engineering the Summer: Collaborating with an international cohort of scholars in Kenya

Engineering the Summer is an annual series following molecular engineering students as they embark on summer internships and career experiences.

This summer, PhD student Emily Doyle, who works in Amanchukwu Lab at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), travelled to Nairobi, Kenya for a two-week workshop. At the Joint Undertaking for an African Materials Institute (JUAMI), PME researchers and other renowned international experts participated in research talks, workshops, and collaborative project proposals.

Please tell us about JUAMI 2023 program

Over two weeks, we had talks each day focused on different topics: photovoltaics, batteries, fuel cells, electrolysis, membranes and separation technologies, nanomaterials, and life cycle analysis. This culminated in a final proposal, for which we spent the first week discussing research project ideas, entrepreneurial dreams, and outreach activities to form groups based on our different areas of interest. In the second week we built a proposal of a project that our group would work together to complete.

A few of the final projects were on thermal energy storage for cooking in remote locations, converting pond and river invasive plant species into absorbants for diaper production, an academic network for finding and reserving scientific instruments at Eastern African institutions. My group proposed an educational kit that will be distributed in universities and teaches the fundamentals of redox flow cell batteries. This would come with a full lesson plan and all materials needed to complete the experiment.

Please share a defining moment or discuss the opportunities you’ve had during your summer experience.

It was really inspiring to discuss how we could use our research expertise to fix prominent issues in our communities. We often get caught up in the details of our fundamental research and forget the big picture, so discussing projects like batteries for microgrids in rural communities and solar installations with electrical to thermal energy conversion were great reminders of why we do the work that we do.

Why is this experience a valuable part of your experience at PME?

This was a small group of people, so it was a great opportunity to network and get to know the work that other groups are doing in a laid-back environment – very different from normal conferences. I had multiple meals with well-established professors and got amazing career and research advice from them in unique one-on-one interactions that you wouldn’t get at a large conference. My favorite interaction was discussing career paths for academics while watching zebras cross the road in front of our bus on a safari.

I also really enjoyed preparing and leading the lab section. This process helped me see that communicating science and finding ways to make it come to life for people is one of my favorite aspects of my work.

Do you feel international cooperation will benefit battery research in the future? How so?

I think there is a lot to learn from international groups. I’ve worked with multiple international students in the past and I’ve found that while the research questions are fairly similar, the perspectives on what approaches are best and what technologies are most prevalent vary and could benefit most from collaboration.

Please tell us about the research on which you’re focused at PME

I am developing novel polymer electrolytes for lithium metal batteries. The primary focus is to develop an electrolyte that is both non-flammable to eliminate concerns of combustion and battery fires and electrochemically stable up to high voltages that will enable operation of heavy duty applications such as trucks and buses. I am most interested in studying the degradation processes in these polymers to better understand how to intuitively design advanced electrolytes.

From your perspective, how has the environment at PME influenced you?

I love how focused the PME is on outreach and engagement with the community. Coming into grad school, this was something I wanted to focus on, and the department has made it extremely easy to pursue outreach and teaching opportunities. These events have helped shape my goals for a future career and taught me what I value most in being a scientist.

What else do you think people should know?

JUAMI was amazing and students should look out for the call for applications next time it happens! It happens every two years, so people should check in with the website if they are interested in participating in the next workshop!

Going to this workshop made me appreciate the strong focus on sustainability we have at the PME. We do so much work focused on promoting sustainable technologies, clean energy, and novel ways to address limited natural resources. It’s great to have this strong focus together in one department!

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.