As a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Utah, I have observed first-hand the benefits of Governor Herbert’s initiative known as the Utah Energy Research Triangle through one of its key components, the Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars.
The Utah Energy Research Triangle supports inter-university collaborative energy research focused on Utah-specific issues at both student and faculty levels. Two of my students, one pursuing her Ph.D. and one pursuing his Bachelor’s degree, are currently participating in the Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars program that has brought tremendous benefit to both my students and to Utah’s energy research and development community by supporting student research on Utah-specific energy challenges.
Undergraduate research is undeniably one of the most important career training exercises that a student can experience during their education. Performing research is truly “where the rubber meets the road” and where students can apply the principles they have learned in their coursework. Students in my lab have commented that the concepts we discussed in my Materials Science and Engineering or Ceramic Engineering courses have made much more sense once they actually worked through the research.
Undergraduate labs accompanying courses are helpful, but critical thinking, problem solving and design are explored when students undertake creative approaches to solving real research problems. However, with high tuition costs, I have observed that undergraduates often take higher paying non-research part-time jobs. A program like the Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars program is unique in that students can come up with the research ideas themselves, and then carry out practical application based research on issues that affect their community and state. It’s very hard to overstate the value of a program such as this.
One of my students, Matthew, has a non-traditional background as an Armed Forces veteran. When he graduates with a Bachelor’s degree, he will do so with an enormous advantage over his peers, given the writing, research, reporting, and oral presentation skills he will develop during his Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars project. Investing in the development of this human capital will ultimately result in the student developing into a leader in his field of research and work.
Funding graduate research is likewise valuable. Funding for scientific research is extremely competitive with many government grants having applicant success rates at 10-20 percent or less. Each grant is typically three years in length, meaning that a single grant will likely not even cover a full PhD student (typically four to six years). Therefore, unique research opportunities like these that bridge the gap between funding are a boon to stabilizing research groups. The greatest benefit, however, is the opportunity for the graduate student to practice writing a research proposal, particularly in a new research direction. Motivating Leila to work hard on her Ph.D. has never been a challenge, but I am surprised at her passion and enthusiasm to take ownership and accomplish this task.
The Utah Energy Research Triangle and the Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars create a bridge between Utah’s research community and the State’s energy needs. Through the Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars, the State is supporting the growth of Utah’s next generation of energy innovators.
Taylor Sparks research group focuses on the discovery, synthesis and characterization of new materials for energy applications such as batteries, thermoelectrics, thermal barrier coatings, thermal management systems and others. Sparks received his Ph.D. in Applied Physics at Harvard University and worked as a postdoc at UCSB in the Materials Research Laboratory.