Statement of Purpose: Columbia University ChemE PhD Application

I wrote this in 2018. If I recall, my statements of purpose for all my graduate school applications were more or less modified versions of my NSF GRFP application essay.

Honestly, I'm surprised how un-bad I find this, 3 years later. I'm not so conceited as to claim it's good, because that's for you to decide.

Reminder: plagiarism is bad.


The extent to which our modern world depends on the transfer of electrons between molecules that, after decades of research, we have packed into neat containers and dubbed “batteries,” fascinates me. From the AA alkaline cells that bring a child’s birthday gift to life, to the lithium iodine cells that power life-changing pacemakers, batteries have burrowed their way into the very heart of our daily lives. But as consumers demand slimmer batteries to power their tiny devices, researchers across the globe seek to develop massive batteries that can power entire communities. No matter their size, clean, reliable, and portable energy systems are critical for our future. I plan to focus my professional life towards developing practical energy storage technologies that can make clean and portable energy a reality. With its strong emphasis on electrochemistry and concrete vision for the future of energy storage, Columbia University’s Department of Chemical Engineering would best prepare me for such a future. I hope to spend the next five years working with the likes of Dr. Daniel Esposito and Dr. Jingguang Chen to investigate the fundamental nature of electrocatalysts and develop cell-level storage devices.

I got my first taste of laboratory research was after my junior year of high school in 2014, when I worked on catalysts for fuel cell applications at the University of South Carolina. In Dr. John Regalbuto’s group, we sought utilize strong electrostatic forces to adsorb catalytic noble metals to porous support materials to reduce particle agglomeration. At the end of my 6 weeks, I recognized the time-consuming nature of research, but I planned to continue along this path. Upon entering Clemson University in the fall of 2015, I immediately joined Dr. Christopher Kitchens’ research group, where I worked on developing magnesium oxychloride cement composites for green building applications. My role not only included investigating the composite’s expansion and strength properties with different fiber additives, but also mentoring a new group member for the summer. Working as a mentor demanded that I develop my research management skills so that I could teach my student about the theory and organize our weekly efforts. This project allowed me to better understand the research process and develop the skills to not only plan experiments, but also to explain the significance of the work to a variety of audiences.

In the midst of this project, I came across literature that described how the sunlight hitting our planet each day could meet the global energy demand for more than 5 years, but solar energy’s intermittent nature requires new ways of storing and redistributing this energy. This problem inspired me to focus on energy storage research starting in spring of 2017, when I joined Dr. Mark Roberts’ group for my departmental honors research. In his group, I worked on carbon nanotube (CNT) electrode materials for supercapacitor and iron RFB applications. A recent breakthrough from our group revealed that CNT electrodes containing iron nanoparticles showed lower impedance and improved specific capacitance compared with other electrode materials. I spent a year investigating possible ways of further utilizing these nanoparticles by chemically oxidizing the CNT electrodes with KMnO4. With my group, I was able to develop an optimized treatment procedure that improved the resulting electrode’s capacitance by over 400% compared to pure CNT electrodes. Working on this project taught me a variety of analytical skills to evaluate electrochemical tests, such as cyclic voltammetry (CV), electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS), and charge-discharge analysis.

The following summer, I flew to Germany for a summer internship with Dr. Matthias Wessling’s group at RWTH-Aachen University. For ten weeks in the summer of 2017, I was immersed into Germany’s leadership in renewable energy realm, revealing both its enormous potential and shortcomings. I worked on a project, funded by their Ministry of Education and Research, that sought to eliminate Germany’s need for coal by improving the scalability of all-vanadium RFBs with slurry electrodes. I put my previous experience with CV and EIS testing to use, while also learning new methods such as polarization curve analysis, to investigate the primary modes of efficiency losses in the cell. At the end of my internship, I was selected as one of six students to give an oral presentation at the 15th Annual UROP International Symposium to over 100 researchers from around the world. Witnessing the international interest in securing our energy future reaffirmed to me the importance of this research.

Working with a state-of-the-art vanadium redox flow battery in Germany, I experienced first-hand the shortcomings of this technology, one of which is the ion-selective membrane. Looking to understand the nature of these membranes, I spent my next summer at the University of Delaware working in Dr. Yushan Yan’s group on their PAP-TP-85 anion exchange membrane (AEM). This class of membrane promises to usher in the next generation of fuel cells and electrolyzers, as alkaline AEM fuel cells would allow for cheaper materials and greater durability compared against state-of-the-art PEM fuel cells. As my role involved characterizing the membrane’s properties, my findings were critical to this objective. By the end of my ten-week tenure, I had applied a battery of tests to find ion exchange capacity (IEC), water uptake, alkaline degradation kinetics, tear strength, and cross-sectional morphology. I came away with an understanding of membrane technologies and a more complete picture of the current state of electrochemistry and energy research.

Each of these research experiences has taught me an array of experimental methods as well as shown me the highs and lows of the job, from obtaining promising results for the group meeting to finding a ruined overnight test due to a power outage. Performing good research is hard—not only have I devised potential procedures for new experiments, but I have also written grant proposals for my departmental honors project, contributed to research papers for publication, and prepared presentations. But the feeling of contributing to a body of knowledge that helps move us towards a better future has made it worth it. Receiving an Honorable Mention for the Goldwater Scholarship only reaffirmed my resolve and encouraged me to apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. I hope to work more closely with industry in the future and see my work leave direct positive impacts on the world around me.

The idea of earning my PhD at Columbia first crossed my mind when I shook Dr. Robert Bozic’s hand at the 2017 AIChE conference in Minneapolis. He and the graduate students at the booth enlightened me to the breadth of faculty and resources engaged in electrochemistry research. Having captured my attention, they introduced me to the department head, Dr. Alan West, and notable faculty members including Dr. Jingguang Chen and Dr. Daniel Esposito. Since then, my interest in Columbia has only grown, and I hope to work with these professors as a part of the newly established Columbia Electrochemical Energy Center. Having worked on research extending from the atomic scale with faradaically enhanced carbon electrodes to the electrochemical cells of vanadium redox flow batteries, I want to offer my experiences to help this center develop affordable energy solutions for a cleaner future.

Earning my PhD at Columbia is next logical step in my journey because the new electrochemical energy center offers unique opportunities to collaborate with researchers from an array of departments and backgrounds that would enlighten me with the full process of designing and deploying new energy systems. While I hope to work primarily with Dr. Esposito on harnessing solar energy and Dr. Chen on electrocatalysis, I want to take advantage of this center to learn about the real-world considerations regarding application and deployment of these systems with Dr. Dan Steingart and Dr. Vijay Modi. No other program has the close-knit interdepartmental collaboration that would allow me to work with such highly experienced people like Dr. Modi, from whom I could learn the logistical and economic considerations for handling energy storage in remote locations, like he did for communities in India and sub-Saharan Africa. This environment, fusing the broad implications of these technological developments with a clear focus on their fundamental properties at this new center makes Columbia my top choice.

I will bring more than just my research experience to this program, as my involvement at Clemson University extends much further than just research. Serving as the president of the Clemson Rifle Team for the last 2 years as well the Chem-E-Car Chair has required me to lead students, coordinate with coaches from across the country, and manage over $50,000 of team finances. Performing my duties while handling my courses and undergraduate research taught me to better manage my time and adapt to situations as they unfold each day. My efforts led to our department participating in its first Chem-E-Car competition in 3 years, and the Clemson Rifle Team both increasing its membership by 400% and sending two athletes to represent South Carolina at the National Junior Olympics. Working as a tutor for calculus, differential equations, and economics taught me to communicate and coordinate with multiple students at once to help them understand difficult concepts. These experiences have improved my presentation skills, as evidenced by my 2nd and 3rd place awards in my sections at the 2017 & 2018 AIChE Undergraduate Poster Competitions. Each of these roles have contributed to my development as an effective communicator, logistical coordinator, and leader. Combined with my research experience, I am confident that my background and interest in energy storage will allow me to make useful contributions as a PhD student to Columbia University’s Department of Chemical Engineering.


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