Chemistry is his major but materials science is his passion. Meet Portland State University student Joseph Thiebes.
He’s expected to graduate in December and go on to grad school, but last summer, he also completed a pretty cool research internship: assisting with lithium-sulfur battery materials chemistry research at NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio.
Read on to learn more about Thiebes and his science interests.1. What is your field of science, and how did you find your way into that field and into science in general? Did you have a teacher, parent, mentor or other who inspired you?
I’m interested in materials science, which is an interdisciplinary field that I approached through chemistry. Materials science is concerned with the relationship between the atomic, molecular and nanoscale structure of materials and the properties that these structures confer. I’m especially interested in materials that are capable of energy conversion (like solar cells) and energy storage (like batteries and capacitors). The natural sciences have always been an interest of mine, as far back as I can remember. I was particularly encouraged by my grade-school mathematics instructor, Bente Winston, with whom I am still in contact. My interest has also been nurtured by two remarkable instructors at Portland Community College: Dr. Mike Mackel, who teaches chemistry, and Tammy Louie, who teaches calculus and other mathematics courses. I have also benefited greatly from the mentorship of my research adviser at Portland State University, Professor Raj Solanki in the Department of Physics.
2. You’re a student at Portland State University. What’s your major or area of study, and are you a graduate student or an undergraduate? What’s your expected graduation date? And where are you from originally, e.g. your hometown?
I’m a senior undergraduate, anticipating graduation in December with a bachelor of science in chemistry, with a minor in physics. I am in the process of applying for graduate schools and plan to pursue a Ph.D. in materials science. I’m originally from Missoula, Montana, which is a liberal arts college town in the Rocky Mountains. I left Missoula for a job in Portland in 1999, at 25 years old. That makes me a nontraditional student, getting my degree at 43 years old. As I’m now fond of telling friends my age: It’s never too late to follow your dreams.
3. In summer 2015, you were a research intern with NASA Glenn, assisting with lithium-sulfur battery materials chemistry research. What can you tell us about your work there; what did you learn while there; and what did you find fun, most interesting or most exciting about the research you were helping with?
My work at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland was focused on experimentation with the composition of lithium-sulfur batteries, under the guidance of Dr. Dionne Hernandez-Lugo. These are a new kind of rechargeable battery, which have the possibility of holding much more electricity per gram of weight, but many challenges remain for their development as commercial products. In particular, sulfur is an insulator, so assembly of these cells includes mixing the sulfur with a conductive material like carbon. A major part of my work involved testing different ratios of sulfur to carbon, to determine an optimal mixture. Another challenge with this type of battery is that they form polysulfides, which can dissolve in the electrolyte during charging and discharging, and when that happens, you lose charge capacity over time. So I experimented with electrolyte composition as well, to determine whether this effect could be mitigated. I characterized the electrodes with scanning electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, cyclic voltammetry, galvanic cycling, thermogravimentric analysis, and Raman spectroscopy. The internship also included educational opportunities, tours, and lectures by NASA scientists and engineers.4. Beyond the internship, what research topics are you regularly involved in? What research projects, R&D or applications are you working on currently? For example, if you’re working on a thesis or dissertation, what are you exploring?
For the last couple years, I’ve been a volunteer research assistant in Professor Raj Solanki’s laboratory at Portland State University, where I’ve assisted with research on Prussian blue analog materials for rechargeable battery cathodes. Prussian blue is one of the first synthesized dyes and has been in use for about 300 years. It turns out to have the ability to intercalate ions and undergo redox, and it has large enough interstitial spaces to accommodate ions that are larger than lithium. We have been experimenting with divalent ions like calcium and magnesium, as well as more abundant monovalent ions like sodium and potassium. We’ve also been experimenting with analogous materials where we swap the iron in Prussian blue for other transition metals. I’ve had many opportunities in the lab to synthesize cathode materials and characterize them. I’ve also helped the lab overall by writing a script that automates some of our data
5. In all of your recent research or applied science endeavors, what have you learned so far that’s excited you? What have you found most challenging in the work?
Lately, I’ve been excited by the prospect of learning computational methods in chemistry as a means of complementing experimental approaches. I’m building a Linux box at home so that I can begin teaching myself how to do this using free software. I think the most challenging aspect of my scientific work is learning to balance research with coursework and with life. As a nontraditional student with a wife and child, it can be easy to over-extend myself. Earning enough to pay the bills, while keeping my grades up and making progress on research is tough. I’m looking forward to graduate school, where at least I’ll earn my salary at school.
6. Have you had public exposure for your work or field of science? What has been the public or media reception or perceptions of your work or scientific field? How has that thrilled or frustrated you? Any misconceptions you found that you’d like to clear up?
This interview is my first “public” exposure, though I have presented my work at research symposia before. I think in some ways, in all the different fields of energy science, I’m a bit lucky in the sense that batteries might be the least political area to get into. Batteries are kind of a lynch-pin in the world of energy. No matter where you get your energy from — the sun, wind, nuclear, petroleum — everyone needs a place to store it and a way to carry it around. If you don’t mind my waxing a bit political for a moment though, I think that we are facing a major crisis, as a civilization and as a species, with respect to our ever-increasing demands for energy. As much as I am a fan of solar and other renewable forms of energy, I also recognize that the ocean is being acidified more rapidly than we can offset our carbon emissions with current renewables. So I feel that we must expand our use of nuclear energy along with solar, wind, geothermal and other technologies. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and we really have to stop burning so much coal.
7. How do you like to connect to the science community around Portland? (“Community” can include peers in your field, other scientists and science fans in the general public.)
I think my favorite way to engage the scientific community is by communicating with those who are not yet part of it. In particular, it is important to me that individuals from underserved communities be encouraged to enter STEM fields because we all benefit from more diverse points of view on the problems faced by humanity. In general, I hear a lot of people saying things like “I’m not a math person,” and I think that is something that comes from childhood, being told that some people are “math people” and some aren’t. But it’s not the case. Math is difficult, just as art is difficult, and everyone has to work at it. So I find it enjoyable to tutor young people and help them to overcome whatever challenges they may face.
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