“My 7th grade science teacher once told my class, ‘If you truly want to make an impact in the world, make car engines more efficient,’” recalls mechanical engineering student Rachel Gray. That moment has stuck with Rachel over the years and is a source of inspiration for the research she has chosen to do at SEAS.
Selected as one of four SEAS students her sophomore year for the prestigious Clare Boothe Luce Scholars program, Rachel began conducting research under her faculty mentor, Dr. Saniya LeBlanc.
She works on a project in Dr. LeBlanc’s lab that aims to build thermal electric generators that capture waste heat from combustion systems, like a car engine or factory equipment. She is researching how powdered semiconductive materials, like magnesium silicide, can be used to build these systems.
“Right now if you are driving a car, if you fill it up, it only uses about one-third of the energy it gets from the gas. The majority of that energy is lost to waste heat,” she says. “These devices can capture that waste heat and convert it back into usable electricity.”
Rachel likes to spread the word about the amazing work that is being done in the energy industry, so during a recent Uber ride, she started up a conversation about hydrogen fuel cells with the driver. At the end of the conversation he asked, “Why haven’t I known about this technology?” And it raises the question with Rachel: Why does the public know so little about the research that goes on?
Rachel believes that researchers often limit their sharing of knowledge to the scientific community, and that by limiting the circle of conversation, scientists and engineers are holding back on opportunities for new discoveries.
“If we are going to tackle some of the toughest problems, such as the energy crisis, we need the help of everybody. And we need to start by having more conversations,” she says, “because you never know what conversation will lead to a spark of inspiration, new discovery, or a different understanding to a problem.”
In addition to wanting to help solve tough problems and make an impact on the world around her, Rachel wants the chance to learn and grow. She believes that her undergraduate research experience has given her that chance.
“Research allows you to grow as an individual and to develop skills that are beneficial no matter what industry or research field you want to go into,” she argues. “If you had told me a year ago that I would be receiving a national research scholarship, be publishing my second research paper, or be presenting my research at a national nuclear reactor summit to the top national laboratory directors and the undersecretary of energy, I would have never believed you. Research has taken me down paths and has opened doors I didn’t even know were possible.”