December 5, 2018

New assistantship program positioned Xiaochen Du (T'21) to contribute to groundbreaking energy materials research

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Freshman Xiaochen Du (T'21) was intrigued when he heard about the Duke University Energy Initiative's new program to fund undergraduate research assistantships last spring. 

"Coming to Duke, I knew I wanted to do energy research but I did not know where to start," recalled Du, who is now a sophomore considering a double major in chemistry and computer science. "I jumped at the opportunity when I first heard about it during a Duke Energy Club meeting. The Energy Initiative suggested some professors I could approach." He reached out to Dr. Volker Blum, a materials science professor at the Pratt School of Engineering.

Du's query was well-timed, Blum noted: "We were embarking on a large, just-funded collaborative project targeting new organic-inorganic hybrid materials for energy-related applications." Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project brings together six research groups located at Duke, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, as well as an international collaborator and an industry partner.

Du received one of eight assistantships that the Energy Initiative funds each year as part of its new Promoting Opportunities With Energy Research (POWER) program, organized in coordination with the Undergraduate Research Support Office

As a research assistant, Xiaochen took the lead on initial development of a central, community-focused component of the project: a publicly available, curated database of hybrid organic-inorganic materials and their properties. 

"Xiaochen spearheaded the implementation of this database, combining complex open-source software elements to a working prototype, and even led the collaborative effort with our colleague Dr. Matti Ropo of University of Turku, Finland, who had experience with this type of database development," reported Blum.

But there's more to the story.

Du's work led, remarkably, to follow-up supplemental funding by NSF for the the tune of $100K. Blum said, "We had no way of knowing or predicting that this would happen—the supplement opportunity only became known in March and we could not have planned for it. But had it not been for Xiaochen's initiative and work, we would not have been ready for this."

Du said the experience was definitely worthwhile. "Not only did I gain an overview of the current energy materials landscape and hone my programming skills, I also got to meet collaborators across the Triangle area and the world." The project helped him to realize that cutting-edge research is about "constantly improving rather than making a straight shot."

"Xiaochen's achievement is unusual and remarkable for an undergraduate researcher, particularly one in his first year," Blum reflects. "We are extremely grateful that his assistantship enabled us to benefit from his talent and skills."

Energy Initiative director Brian Murray said Du's story illustrates why the new assistantship program was created. "Undergraduates are eager to get hands-on experience in energy research at Duke. After all, some of the foremost experts in fields like energy materials are right here on campus, doing groundbreaking work. But Duke undergraduates are also highly motivated and capable. They can contribute a great deal to Duke faculty's energy research efforts, if given the right role and guidance."

As Du worked on Blum's project, he was also taking Energy and Society, a freshman seminar course taught by Energy Initiative assistant director for research development Jonathon Free. The course added depth to Du's interest in the energy sciences and made him reflect on his own energy choices, he said.

"Most of the time, our energy system works so well we don't think about what goes behind it, like people being displaced, mistreated, or making other kinds of sacrifices," Du reflected. "We don't think about sustainability. There's a lot we take for granted. It has made me realize, I want to do this research, but I always want to be thinking about how I use that research and deliver it in a way that actually does benefit humanity." 

Are you a Duke undergraduate interested in a research assistantship for Spring 2019? The application period for Spring 2019 opens January 9, but you're encouraged to get started now by connecting with a faculty member. Learn more. 

Are you a Duke faculty member who'd like to take part in the program in Spring 2019? You can recruit an undergraduate to apply for funds for a Spring 2019 assistantship. The Energy Initiative can help with identifying a student if needed. Learn more.