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Developing the Next Generation of Sustainable Energy Leaders

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October 28, 2020

Graduate students in a boot camp for a new Ohio State sustainable energy program faced a timely challenge: How has the pandemic changed energy production and consumption, and how can we make use of or leverage those changes for driving future energy use?

Jaden Tatum in agricultural engineering and Brian Capobianco in environment and natural resources worked together on one of the bootcamp teams in the new interdisciplinary graduate traineeship program, “Convergent Graduate Training and EmPOWERment for a Sustainable Energy Future.” They examined the energy and environmental benefits of remote work or a hybrid work model and how to convince or incentivize corporate decision-makers to allow work-from-home flexibility moving forward.

“The team had several different engineers and one student with a policy background. It was interesting to see how we all brought our respective backgrounds to this project that was out of our collective wheelhouses, and each explored different areas of interest around the project,” says Tatum, who is studying international development and, specifically, sustainable agriculture practices and renewable energy possibilities.

EmPOWERment encompasses several new courses; a summer research program for targeted student recruitment; and multiple opportunities for students to engage with industry. With Ohio State’s Battelle Center, it also features a Student Community of Practice and Engagement  (SCOPE) for students interested in sustainable energy. It will create more than 32 one-year stipends for National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) fellows, targeted to female and underrepresented minority students.

Brian Capobianco, whose research focus is on social barriers to nuclear energy and thorium energy technology, says what he’s gained most in the program is seeing how people from different backgrounds instinctively approach problems.

“I benefitted a lot from the boot camp experience,” Capobianco says. “Not only did it get me to utilize my strengths in different ways — like researching corporate demographics and recognizing companies’ cultural and social goals — but seeing how what I was doing could incorporate and expand on the research my groupmates were doing, and vice-versa, really brought home how a multidisciplinary approach provides all these positive feedbacks to create a more complete outcome.”

Ohio State researchers received a $2.98 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) grant to launch EmPOWERment this fall. The overarching goal is to provide interdisciplinary training for students to develop solutions to the societal grand challenge of making energy systems more sustainable, says Ramteen Sioshansi, professor and associate chair of the Department of Integrated Systems Engineering. An affiliated faculty member of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State, he is the principal investigator for the program, leading a core team of faculty drawn from seven colleges across the university.

“Developing feasible and workable solutions to the energy sustainability challenge requires accounting for broad interdisciplinary perspectives,” Sioshansi says. “For example, an engineer who develops a technical solution that neglects the economics, policy constraints or behavioral aspects of the energy system may develop a device that no one can sell or no one wants to buy or which may not pass policy scrutiny. Conversely, setting regulatory rules without accounting for technical characteristics of energy production, storage and consumption could yield very poor policy decisions. EmPOWERment gives students the breadth of training that is needed to be successful in this endeavor.”

EmPOWERment trainees complete an additional 19 credit hours of course work that supplements their doctoral studies and receive a graduate interdisciplinary specialization designation on their transcripts.

Beyond the interdisciplinary nature of the program, EmPOWERment focuses on providing professional development and training for non-academic careers, says Program Coordinator Diane Boghrat.

“For example, we offer training experiences in communicating to technical and non-technical audiences; we’re helping students to build networks — both academic and non-academic — in the energy space through mentoring and internships with energy-sector partners; and we’re offering experiential-learning opportunities including the bootcamp, the Institute for Materials Research INNOVATE-O-thon and a capstone-project course,” she explains. “Through these experiences, trainees are exposed to rapid prototyping and rapid product development — skills that are needed for energy-industry leaders.”

Tatum and Capobianco agree that EmPOWERment moves them toward their goals of being well-rounded scholars and professionals.

“EmPOWERment gives me the opportunity to dive into areas well outside my comfort zone but gives me the support to know I won’t be overwhelmed,” Capobianco says.

Adds Tatum: “My future career will involve collaborating with researchers from different areas to evaluate projects across the spectrum of social, environmental and economic impacts. I believe the EmPOWERment program is really preparing me for these collaborations through working closely with students in many other disciplines and hearing perspectives from different fields through the Energy SCOPE at the Battelle Center. These opportunities complement the technical and research skills I’m gaining through my graduate program and make me feel more prepared for the next step after graduate school.”

EmPOWERment is recruiting graduate students for the second year of the program. Boghrat is leading recruitment efforts in conjunction with other NRT programs around the country that are focused in similar application-theme areas. These recruitment efforts will be targeted toward minority-serving institutions.

Applications for the 2021-2022 academic year will be accepted until June 1, 2021; however, applications received by the Nov. 15 early admissions deadline will receive full fellowship consideration.

More about EmPOWERment 

Application process 

The 2020-21 Empowerment class:

◦         Jamie Allen, environment and natural resources: Earned a 3.95 GPA in her B.S. program, placing her in the top 2% of her graduating class, all while working on two independent research projects in three different laboratories.

◦         Brian Capobianco, environment and natural resources: Carried out groundbreaking research as an M.S. student about public perceptions and policy barriers to the adoption of nuclear energy, which he will continue as a Ph.D. student.

◦         Kate Clelland, electrical and computer engineering: Won three awards for research that she carried out as an undergraduate on developing novel processes for producing hydrogen from low-carbon fuel sources.

◦         Ronald Davies, computer science and engineering: Excellent data-science background, including a research project at Nationwide Children’s Hospital that was focused on bioinformatics.

◦         Diego Hincapie Ossa, civil engineering: Extensive hands-on experience in the sustainable energy field, including field work with The Nature Conservancy in Latin America, leading to the development of tools that are used by government agencies to evaluate sustainable design of hydroelectric facilities.

◦         Michael Lee, mechanical engineering: As a B.S./M.S. student, conducted cutting-edge research, for which he won an undergraduate research award, on developing materials to enhance the lifetime and performance of lithium-ion batteries.

◦         Ahmad Mohammadshirazi, computer science and engineering: Entered his Ph.D. program with two patents and four peer-reviewed publications (based on his B.S. and M.S. studies) to his name.

◦         Jaden Tatum, food, agricultural and biological engineering: Received numerous university- and statewide merit-based scholarships as a B.S. student while carrying out research studying the impact of agricultural policy on rice yields in the state of Arkansas.

◦         Qingrun Yang, civil engineering; Conducted undergraduate research that won an award for being in the top 1% of his university and published six peer-reviewed articles based on this work.

By Joan Slattery Wall, editor, Sustainability Institute at Ohio State