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Ph.D. in Hand, Postdocs Explore Their Futures

June 7, 2016

A woman works in a laboratory.

Antonella (Lilly) Amore works in the Biochemistry Lab at the Field Test Laboratory Building at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

Of all the people found at the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), about 85 occupy the unique role of postdoctoral researcher.

The postdocs, as they're known, contribute to the wealth of research capabilities at NREL as they work alongside established scientists. The recently minted Ph.D graduates are hired to work at the Colorado lab for one to three years, on a professional path toward either full-time research or an academic career.

Here's what four current postdocs have to say about their time at NREL. They are Antonella (Lilly) Amore (whose Ph.D. is in industrial and molecular biology, earned at the University of Naples Federico II), Rui Yang (electrical and computer engineering, Carnegie Mellon University), Boris Chernomordik (chemical engineering, University of Minnesota), and Asad Hasan Sahir (chemical engineering, University of Utah).

Where did you grow up?

Amore: I am from Italy, and my hometown is Scauri, a small village on the sea, between Rome and Naples.

Yang: I am from China, originally. I grew up in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, and went to Tsinghua University in Beijing for college. After I received my bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Tsinghua University, I came to the United States for my Ph.D. study in Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Chernomordik: I was born in Moscow, Russia. My parents, brother, and I came to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993 when I was eight. I grew up in Louisville until going to graduate school in Minneapolis.

Sahir: I am from India. My hometown is Udaipur, which is a city in Rajasthan state.

A woman works at a computer.

Rui Yang works on grid analysis at the Energy Systems Integration Facility at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

How closely does your Ph.D. relate to what you're doing at NREL? What exactly are you working on here?

Amore: My Ph.D. is strongly related to the work I am currently focused on. During my Ph.D. school I was interested in the development/discovery of new biocatalysts for the production of second-generation bioethanol and other bioproducts from lignocellulosic biomass. At NREL, I am working mainly on the characterization of the cellulase Cel7A from the fungus Trichoderma reesei, this being the workhorse enzyme in the worldwide lignocellulose conversion industry.

Yang: My Ph.D. is directly related to my work at NREL. During my Ph.D., I was working on how to integrate power flow control devices into power system operation in order to improve the overall system performance. My work at NREL is mainly focused on how to manage distribution systems with distributed energy resources and smart homes. Both my Ph.D. work and my work at NREL are focused on dealing with the challenges and opportunities brought by renewable energy resources to power system operation. And both jobs use my skills in power system operation and optimization.

Chernomordik: The great part about my postdoctoral experience is that I have been able to apply some of the experiences I acquired during my Ph.D. and have gained many new skills as well. Both during my Ph.D. and at NREL, I have investigated promising solar cell materials. The specific materials and some of the measurements and analyses are different between the two roles. At the same time, some of the scientific questions have been similar—how does the material grow under different conditions, or how do we reproducibly improve the desired material properties? Now, I am studying nanocrystal materials called quantum dots. One of the advantages of these quantum dots is that they may push the efficiency limit of solar cells beyond that of anything on the market today.

Sahir: My Ph.D. was on conceptual process design and modeling of an advanced combustion system for carbon dioxide capture called chemical-looping combustion. Since September 2013, I have worked with the Biorefinery Analysis and Exploratory Research section at the National Bioenergy Center and have been privileged to contribute to a variety of process engineering research problems along the value chain of converting biomass to biofuels. These include conceptual process design and modeling for catalytic fast pyrolysis, co-conversion of natural gas and biomass to liquids, hydroprocessing of bio-based blendstocks for fuel production, and more recently, developing models for blending of biofuels and petroleum intermediates.

What attracted you to NREL?

Amore: I heard about NREL when I was doing my master's degree thesis work. During that time, I started working with cellulases and the other enzymes involved in lignocellulose conversion. I have followed NREL protocols and studied NREL scientists' research papers, many of which were the principal ones referred to for my studies. This is the reason why NREL was among my top selections when I decided to have my postdoctoral experience in the United States. I am feeling so lucky, like I made a dream come true.

Yang: NREL is the world leader in renewable energy research and development, with state-of-the-art test facilities and real-world impacts. There's collaboration with both academia and industry. I will be able to leverage the skill set developed in Ph.D. training to contribute to research projects while gaining practical experience and making real-world impacts.

Chernomordik: There are a lot of interesting scientific topics being investigated at NREL with an atmosphere of collaboration. I was attracted to the opportunities for collaboration with the many brilliant and accomplished scientists.

Sahir: My fascination with NREL has its beginnings from my previous job in research and development in petroleum refining at one of India's energy majors (Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited). I came across information on NREL conceptual process design reports on ethanol production and syngas fermentation during a literature review for an emergent technology. These reports have been appreciated by chemical engineers and analysts as a reference point to formulate decisions for process design and business for fuel production industries worldwide.

A man in a laboratory displays a solution in a small enclosed glass tube.

Boris Chernomordik synthesizes quantum dot nanocrystals for solar cells at the Nanomaterial Synthesis Lab at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

How important is it to do postdoctoral work? Is this a requirement?

Amore: Once you decide to achieve a Ph.D., whatever the final career goal is—to work in academia or in industry—doing postdoctoral work is very important for growth as a scientist. It's important to have a postdoctoral experience in a laboratory different from the one where you worked while working toward your Ph.D.

Yang: In the area of power systems engineering, it is not a requirement to do postdoctoral work after finishing Ph.D. studies. It is more of a personal choice. If you would like to stay in academia, doing postdoctoral work will help you continue your research, further develop your expertise, and build up your connections in both academia and industry.

Chernomordik: A postdoc is an opportunity for additional research experience, after graduate school, used to learn new skills and/or hone existing skills. While it may not be a requirement, a postdoctoral experience is frequently preferred for academic positions. It may also benefit those who seek a career in industry.

Sahir: Any postdoctoral experience in my personal opinion is an opportunity to create value by furthering your area of expertise, or by exploring a research area which a researcher wishes to develop after their Ph.D. through their work leveraging three crucial variables: ideas, mentors, and scientific infrastructure. In addition to the scientific perspective, in my view the role of this position in further developing vital skills that may not be nurtured during a Ph.D., owing to its focused nature, deserve a mention. These include participating and contributing in diverse project teams, developing an appreciation for financial aspects associated with a scientific activity, sharpening research skills through interaction with mentors, and also appreciating the larger picture associated with a research project.

Who is your mentor, and what did you learn from either watching or talking with them?

Amore: My mentor is Dr. Stephen R. Decker, section supervisor at the Biosciences Center. I like his approach to the researchers of his group. He listens a lot to our ideas, and he always wants to be updated with our results. That is a good example to become a good manager one day.

Yang: My mentor is Dr. Yingchen Zhang, senior engineer in the Power System Operations and Control group. There are four great things I learned: vision, leadership, collaboration, and communications.

Chernomordik: I work with Matt Beard and Joey Luther, who are both senior scientists. It has been really great to learn some of the fundamental science governing the properties of nanocrystals through conversations with my mentors. I have also learned a lot about how the national lab system works and about the grant process for large programs. That has been interesting and helpful to better understanding the bigger picture of how national objectives and funding initiatives influence science, and vice versa.

Sahir: During my work experience at NREL on different projects, I had insightful learning experiences by working with senior engineers Abhijit Dutta, Mary Biddy, Michael Talmadge, Ling Tao, and Eric Tan, among others. Their insights and reflections on my work have been valuable in enriching my understanding on the analysis requisites for enabling energy technologies.

A man leans against a railing.

Asad Sahir stands outside of the Solar Energy Research Facility at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

What have you enjoyed most about working at NREL?

Amore: I am so enjoying the opportunity to have daily interactions with the scientists whose research I have followed during my studies. I'm also enjoying the multicultural aspects of NREL, being in contact with people from all over the world and discovering new cultures.

Yang: There are three things I have enjoyed most about working at NREL. I have significantly expanded my skill set. I feel I keep learning new things every single day. I have the opportunities to connect with people from universities, national labs, and industry. All my colleagues are knowledgeable, supportive, and helpful. My mentor is extremely supportive and helpful. He supports and helps me on the projects I am working on and provides me opportunities to learn new things. He also provides me with opportunities to collaborate with researchers both inside and outside NREL.

Chernomordik: I love that people are happy to work together and to help each other. Also, Colorado is just amazing.

Sahir: Beyond my work at the Biorefinery Analysis and Exploratory Research section, another opportunity that has been pivotal in shaping my experience was my participation in the NREL postdoctoral committee created by Danelle Wilder and Leah Haney. The committee serves as a way to interact with colleagues who are working in various disciplines and centers associated with renewable energy. NREL has been instrumental in providing a valuable experience to understand emerging energy technologies, beyond my previous experience with conventional energy.

What, if any, obstacles did you have to overcome to become a postdoc at NREL?

Amore: The hiring process at NREL is highly selective; however, I did not meet any major obstacles during the interview process. I can say that, to me, the biggest obstacle was accepting the huge distance from my family and friends in Italy. But also in this case I feel very lucky, receiving their support every day.

Yang: For me, the whole process went smoothly. I met recruiters Chris Nash and Danelle Wilder at the job fair at the IEEE Power & Energy Society General Meeting in July 2014 and met Dr. Bri-Mathias Hodge at a job fair at Carnegie Mellon University two months later. From them, I learned about the exciting job opportunities at NREL. The recruiting team at NREL was quite efficient.

Chernomordik: Postdoctoral opportunities at NREL are coveted due to the high caliber of research here, and the available positions are limited.

Sahir: I didn't have any [obstacles]. During my interactions with undergraduate and graduate students, if I come across an individual aspiring for an innovative experience in renewable energy, I always encourage them to think of NREL in their plans.

Interested in speaking to some of NREL's amazing postdocs?  The lab is inviting industry representatives to network with the postdocs at a June 14 special event from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, contact Danelle Wilder.

Learn more about postdoctoral opportunities at NREL.

— Wayne Hicks