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Researcher of the Month

November 2019

Jeremy Nielsen

Mechanical engineering major, University Scholars program; Class of 2020

Research Mentor:  Dr. David Hwang, Mechanical Engineering, AERTC

Jeremy Nielsen

Jeremy Nielsen is a senior mechanical engineering major in the University Scholars honors program. In spring semester of his freshman year, he took the initiative to start doing research under the mentorship of Prof. David Hwang at the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC), where he has developed expertise in renewable energy technology. He has worked on microscale heat transfer analysis applied to process-based research of laser scribing manufacturing methods for thin-film solar cells and organic semiconductor technology. His current research focuses on improving methods for incorporating renewable energy into building components using perovskite-silicon tandem solar cells. This summer, Jeremy participated in the Science Undergraduate Learning Internship (SULI) program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado where he worked on developing quantified photoluminescence imaging methods to measure defects in silicon solar cells.

Jeremy interned as a hardware engineer at Jasmine Universe (2018) where he worked on Internet of Things technology to enable higher energy efficiency for use in homes and small businesses. Jeremy has also worked as a systems integrator for Richlin Machinery (2016) where he designed and fabricated automated manufacturing equipment. At Stony Brook, he has dedicated much of his time and energy to CentriSeed Innovations, a SB student organization devoted to providing innovative and sustainable solutions locally and abroad, as an Outreach Coordinator (and previously as Treasurer &Vice President). Jeremy has presented some projects from CentriSeed at the Advanced Energy Conference (2018).

Reflecting on his experiences in research to date, Jeremy highlights the benefit of “just being able to work on problems I'm passionate  about. That’s super empowering. … Being able to do that at such a young age is an amazing opportunity that I don’t think I could have had at a lot of other places.”

Jeremy is a graduate of Comsewogue HS in Port Jefferson Station. His hobbies include exploring the natural world by hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking. He also enjoys building and tinkering with robots, and playing ultimate Frisbee. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview:

Karen:  How did you first get involved in research?
Jeremy: I was excited to get involved in research when I first came to Stony Brook as a freshman. I knew I wanted to apply what I was learning in my classes to something practical and work on a project that would have some positive broader impact. So, I started looking around, poking through my department’s website. I had always cared very deeply about renewable energy and sustainability, and I found out about Professor Hwang and the work he was doing. I reached out and we discussed the different projects he was working on and we talked about what we cared about as scientists and engineers. He told me that I would need to get up to speed by reading a lot of papers and teaching myself some background material, but that eventually I would be able to run my own experiments. I joined his group in the spring semester of my freshman year and began working on thin-film photovoltaics with one of the Ph.D. students in the group. 

That's great that you got an early start!

I was lucky to run into Prof. Hwang so quickly. I’m glad that Prof. Hwang saw that I had some promise, even though I wasn’t as experienced at that time. And it’s been a win-win. I’ve been working in AERTC for over two and a half years now. It’s a very collaborative environment. It’s nice to have that group setting where we can collaborate on ideas openly. I think of new things to bring to him, and of course he has decades of experience to give to me. He wants to hear my unaltered thoughts about certain projects—he encourages me to use my imagination, to come up with ideas. With so much experience, he just seems to know if it’s something we can accomplish in a realistic time frame with our resources. It’s a really great environment to be in.

What are you working on?
I just had a big shift in my work. Previously I had been working with a Ph.D. student (who graduated) on using laser scribing technology to improve manufacturing techniques of thin film solar cells. My current research is focused on improving methods for incorporating renewable energy into building components such as windows and exterior walls. Basically, I’m trying to address the question of how we can use all the space we take up in buildings to generate electricity and make the carbon footprint of our buildings overall smaller.
In light of my recent experience at a national renewable energy laboratory, I’ve started to work on perovskite silicon tandems. We are taking silicon solar cells, which lead the market and are being made at scale, and combining them with the promising technology of perovskites. These materials have complementary properties for how they absorb sunlight, so they can be combined to make more efficient solar cells. More specifically, I’m investigating how this exciting new innovation in solar energy performs in ambient and incident light rather than direct sunlight. Developing photovoltaic materials that are efficient in diffuse light is critical to unlocking the potential of building-integrated photovoltaics. As renewable energy technology advances, we become closer to power our society with reliable and sustainable methods. 

You mentioned working at a national laboratory. Was that through a summer program?
Yes, this past summer I was at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado through a SULI program. I’d been hearing about NREL for years, so working there was a dream come true. Being able to get out to Colorado and do research at a national lab focused on all the problems I care about was amazing! Once I got there, I was able to work with the crystalline silicon photovoltaics team on improving a new method to measure parameters of solar cells using photoluminescence. I also got to work alongside some of the leading experts in different branches of renewable energy whose names I recognized from papers I'd read, which was incredible. 

Sounds like you really enjoyed the SULI program at NREL!
My SULI at NREL was amazing. Of course, the research was incredible, but I also grew a lot both professionally and personally. There was a lot of helpful structure in terms of professional development for the internship program. They really focused on communicating science to a general audience which is very important to me. We wrote a paper about the research we performed during our internship. There was also a poster session at the end of the internship which was a great way to celebrate the collective hard work and exciting science resulting from the internship program. The overall environment was great, too. I was surrounded by dozens of other early career scientists who are also excited about scientific questions at the heart of renewable energy and sustainability. Being part of a broader community of scientists working to make the transition to a renewable energy economy a reality was inspiring. I also got to explore the bounty of natural beauty that Colorado has to offer in the company of other interns. Overall, it was a privilege to work at a place that has been so central to the widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies. I learned so much from my experience at NREL and I’m sure it will continue to influence my decisions going forward

What are your future plans?
Well, I’m at a bit of a crossroads right now. What I truly care about Is developing renewable energy technology to provide more reliable power supplies while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, so I’m trying to figure out the best way I can help tackle that problem. I’m currently leaning towards pursuing a graduate degree in mechanical engineering focused on thermal sciences which is basically the study of heat and energy. However, I’m also open to the idea of working in the energy industry immediately after graduation. I’m also looking into different fellowships and study abroad opportunities. Overall, I’m just trying my best to figure out how I can solve the problems I’m passionate about.

During the academic year, is it difficult to balance all your commitments as a student, a researcher, and a participant in student organizations?
Sometimes I can’t spend as much time in the lab as I would like to because of other obligations, but we make it work since I’m passionate about the work. Plus, AERTC is a great environment to work in. Prof. Hwang is also a mentor who is very understanding. His experience gives him an innate sense of what will work and what won’t in terms of an actual research project. He knows how to take my enthusiasm and focus it into research questions that will lead to productive outcomes. Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by classes and the enormity of all these scientific problems that we’re trying to solve, his mentorship provides a level-headed approach. I also appreciate getting his thoughts about graduate school and other research opportunities. He understands that my passion for research comes from a personal motivation linked to my care about climate change and access to energy.  

Looking back at when you first started at AERTC with no prior experience, how have your skills grown over the years?
My skills in and out of the lab have grown tremendously as a result of my experience in the lab. At first, I was helping a Ph.D.  -- basically just supporting that project. It was meaningful work, but I wasn’t the one designing the experiments. I had somebody else guiding me through their process. That process, though, being able to learn in a safe, incubator type environment, was actually a very helpful way to learn: it gives you training wheels so you can learn how to be an effective scientist ... Now, as I’ve gained more experience and knowledge, Prof. Hwang trusts me more to develop my own ideas and projects, especially after working at NREL. We’re only just starting our work on this new silicon perovskite tandem project, but I’m excited to be working on it.

What do you enjoy most about being involved in research?
I most enjoy being able to work on solutions to problem I’m truly passionate about. Being able to work on renewable energy was a lifelong goal which I never expected to accomplish in college until I just started doing it. Being exposed to that level of research at a young age has been an amazing opportunity which I don’t think I could have had at a lot of other places. My involvement in research has also provided me an outlet to understand more about my coursework. I used to find some of the theory in my classes to be a bit abstract, but now I have a better grasp of how that scientific understanding is developed. Being able to witness the process of generating new knowledge is an immense privilege and I hope to make that experience more widely accessible as I continue my career.

What advice would you give to other undergraduates about research?
I would say: pursue your passions, unapologetically.  If you can figure out how to communicate what you’re passionate about and why you care, that’s a great place to start. Once you can advocate for problems that you truly care about, you can start to make sense of the vast resources at your fingertips. Also, focus on your personal growth and the broader learning process. As a budding young scientist, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable at times and make mistakes. These moments can be great opportunities for growth. After all, you define your own success and should have agency over your own path. If you encounter an obstacle, try to come up with a creative solution or even create your own opportunity in its place. Don’t shy away from diverse opportunities. For instance, I have internship experience in addition to my work in the lab. Having a broader set of experiences can help expand your own perspectives and overcome blindspots in your work. Most importantly, remember to treat yourself well along the way.