SUPER CAPACITOR, SUPER COLLABORATOR: Engineering Ph.D. students talk collaboration in the lab and their high-performance research

From left, Xuezhe Zhou, Matthew Lim, and Matthew Crane, graduate students and collaborators, stand in front of Suzzallo Library.
From left, Xuezhe Zhou, Matthew Lim, and Matthew Crane, graduate students and collaborators, stand in front of Suzzallo Library.

The stereotypical scientist toils alone in a laboratory or study, isolated by their research. While this is sometimes the case, collaboration among researchers can also be critical to doing good science. Take for example three of our Ph.D. students in the Pauzauskie Research Group: Matthew Crane, Matthew Lim and Xuezhe Zhou. These students joined forces and developed a fast, cheap method to make supercapacitors — essentially, a high-power electrochemical energy storage device — that may be used in electric cars, among other things. We caught up with Lim, who is entering his fifth year as a Ph.D. student in Materials Science & Engineering, and Crane, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering, to discuss their collaboration, as well as the ups-and-downs of contributing to a high-impact research group. Zhou was not available at the time of the interview.

How did you come to collaborate?

Matthew Crane: We work in the same research group, and have worked with the same material — a carbon aerogel — but for different purposes.

Matthew Lim: But we hadn’t worked together as closely until this paper. This project started with a paper I published in 2015, where I used the same carbon aerogel but incorporated a different material. That paper that caught the eye of the editor of a fairly new journal, and they asked us to submit a research article. We started the project around June/July 2016, and submitted that August, to meet the journal’s deadline.

MC: Due to the deadline, it was kind of a whirlwind paper. It was pretty full-steam ahead for a few months.

What do you gain from having multiple graduate students working on one paper?

MC: I did a lot of work making the material, and (Lim) did a lot of work characterizing it and making supercapacitors out of it. I don’t have a lot of background in that. I could not have done that half of the paper without Matt (Lim).

ML: And it helped to have multiple students working on the paper, considering we had a deadline. I think without Matt (Crane) to look over my writing, help make figures and contribute to the analysis it would have been really hard to do all that myself and have submitted on time, considering I’m also working on other projects.

Can you describe the importance of collaboration in scientific research?

MC: Well, it’s definitely important. There are a lot of groups on campus doing the same research from different backgrounds, and sometimes that can be a challenge. For example, different fields will use different terminologies to describe the same things, which can make it difficult to communicate. But because these different disciplines come from different backgrounds you have the advantages of both. For example, Matt (Lim) comes from a material-sciences background, and looks at defects in materials to a much higher degree than I have experience with. Matt (Lim) asks questions that I wouldn’t think to ask, from my background. So, yeah, I think there’s really big advantages to collaboration.

ML: And apart from the advantages of interdisciplinary collaboration, collaboration in general is a must for any type of research project you want to publish. Research projects are typically so broad that if a single person was to try to do the whole project, it would take an inordinately long time.

Your research has potentially important results for industry, including powering electric cars. What do you see as the relationship between industry and academia?

ML: Our study was very “proof of concept.” No one had tried doing this before. Industry generally builds on research that started in academia — they scale up and commercialize promising tech findings.

MC: Academia cares about the “why” of the question. Industry cares about using and optimizing the technology. In academia, people are a little more willing to take a risk. There’s a feeling of “just try it.”

What is it like to work for such a high-powered research team?

MC: It’s really fun to watch the research unfold over the course of the project. We try a lot of things, and eventually see this high-performing technology develop. It can be really exciting to observe an unusual thing for the first time.

ML: But it’s equally frustrating — in any project, there are countless instances of when a new result doesn’t turn out, and you end up scratching your head and wondering why.

MC: And that’s okay, that’s academia. It’s about asking why, not just about looking for results. Everything you learn is important. In fact, there’s one instance of something that didn’t work so well in our study that we still included in the supporting information of our article. So hopefully it will help other researchers.

published September 15, 2017