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Student’s materials research leads to Goldwater Scholarship

A self-described “ever learner,” second-year chemical engineering major Emma Kaeli has cultivated her passion for research while at Northeastern, which has helped her realize her dream of improving materials used in alternative technologies.

“I find it so fascinating that you can change something at the molecular level and it changes that something’s entire functionality,” said Kaeli, E’18. “It’s not about mechanics or physics, it’s about the chemistry.”

Kaeli’s most recent research, which focused on making solar panels more efficient, led to her being named a 2015-16 Goldwater Scholarship recipient. “It was a complete surprise,” Kaeli said. “I knew I had a developed research plan, but I had seen so many great plans from other applicants that I was like, ‘There is no way they’ll pick me.’”

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship is a highly competitive, merit-based award for outstanding college sophomores and juniors in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering who are interested in pursuing research careers. Of 1,206 candidates nationwide, Kaeli was one of 260 students selected to receive the scholarship.

She was one of four Northeastern University students to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship. The other three—Jacob Barlow, E’17, Nicholas DePorzio, S’16, and Benjamin Moran, S’18—each earned honorable mention, recognition bestowed upon just 150 students.

Thanks to a Northeastern University Scholars Independent Research Fellowship, last fall Kaeli worked in the Interface Engineering Laboratory run by associate professor Katherine Ziemer,  in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Kaeli’s work focused on how to create a material that could take the heat solar panels generate and turn that heat into electricity.

“Solar panels are extremely inefficient especially at high temperatures because they overheat,” Kaeli explained. “My goal is to make solar panels more affordable, more efficient, and a more viable option for people who want to use alternative sources of energy.”

The primary focus of her work in Ziemer’s lab was to grow materials for integration onto solar panels—and she is planning to use her scholarship money to further fund this project this fall.

Kaeli noted that this material would ideally be applied to other instruments that can lose energy through heat, such as a car engine. “The fact of the matter is we lose so much energy through heat,” Kaeli said. “If I were able to make something that could redeliver energy to a circuit in some other way or make something self generating, that would be perfect.”

Kaeli is currently on co-op at the Innovation Center of the Rogers Corporation, a materials manufacturer. There, she works with a wide berth of materials and manipulates them in every way imaginable.

“I know I really like research, which I’ve been doing since high school,” Kaeli said. “So I wanted to try to find another aspect of research and the Rogers Corporation gives me that. I feel like that is the point of co-op, to figure out what you want to do.”

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