Mary Gates Endowment For Students

Meghna Shankar

Mary Gates Research Scholar, Autumn 2021

Research Project: Heavy-Atom-Free Sensitizers for NIR-to-Visible Solar Photon Upconversion

Project Description: Solar panels are an effective renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating global climate change. Mainstream photovoltaic technologies do not effectively utilize photon energies in the near-infrared, a large portion of the solar spectrum. Using computational chemistry to understand these trends is more efficient than synthesizing each molecule and will serve as a guide for which donor groups to test experimentally. We will synthesize and perform photoinduced spectroscopy on the most promising candidate(s) to determine whether they exhibit the desired near-infrared absorbance and high efficiency.

What have you learned throughout your research project?

I have learned a lot about the research process, including reading literature to find future directions for a project setting up an experiment to test a hypothesis. I have also gained a lot of respect for the amount of troubleshooting researchers must go through to ensure the functionality of their experiment. On the experimental side, I have found that measurements can be extremely sensitive to small changes in the set-up, so it is important to have a good procedure and check the equipment being used. Even with computational chemistry, there is a lot of trial and error in setting up calculations with the right parameters, interacting with the supercomputers, and using software that gives the data we need. In addition to generic research experience, I have also learned a lot about photochemistry and clean energy research! It has been very interesting drawing connections between the project and the quantum mechanics I learn in my physics classes. 

What piece of advice do you have for future applicants?

I think it is important to work on projects that interest you, as the work will be very rewarding that way. Don’t feel upset if you don’t understand everything going on in the project on the first day. There is definitely a steep learning curve because the research topics in labs are so specialized. On the way to understanding the science, you will also gain valuable skills that are applicable to research in a wide variety of domains. For me, seeing the applications of the project to clean energy are very rewarding and motivate me.