U. training program’s students discuss energy research


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Photo by Marielle Sumergido |

Corie Hlavaty, a School of Engineering and Biological Sciences senior, looks at informative posters yesterday made by graduate students at the  Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship at the Busch Campus Center.


After Shannon Morath graduated with a degree in English and French from New York University, she decided to apply to the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship at the University because of an interest in environmental research.

“It’s been a long journey, but the program was the reason I came to Rutgers,” said Morath, a third-year graduate student in the Rutgers Plant Biology Graduate Program.

IGERT funds graduate students for two years while they pursue research. The University is only one of two to have had six IGERT programs, said Johanna Bernstein, the program coordinator for the nanotechnology and energy research sector.

Morath and Chris Petoukhoff, also an IGERT student, discussed sustainable energy and nanotechnology in solar panels at the Energy Café hosted by the Rutgers Energy Institute Wednesday in the Busch Campus Center.

Other IGERT students also created posters to depict the many projects they are involved in, said Linda Anthony, program coordinator for the sustainable fuel IGERT program.

Bob Kopp, associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, said he wanted a forum that would bring faculty, students, and staff together.

“It’s coffee and an informal discussion,” he said. “It’s more free-form than the lecture hall or a seminar.”

Bernstein said the University supplements funding from National Science Foundation. Since 1998, there have been 300 programs with 150 currently active.

Along with research, students participate with the many facets of energy technology through multidisciplinary graduate classes and collaboration between different majors, Morath said.

For her environmental impact research, Morath said she worked with biology, public policy and public health students.

Bernstein said the program had a variety of majors, such as chemistry, physics, materials sciences, and electrical and mechanical engineering.

Petoukhoff, a School of Engineering second-year graduate student, said his IGERT team went to Highland Park Elementary School to teach third-graders about clean energy.

“We had to explain the basics to them, which is completely different from most academic presentations,” he said. “But they enjoyed the hands-on activities, so it was pretty fun.”

In his talk, Petoukhoff discussed his research about solar energy and nanotechnology, which he said could have implications for the cost and function of solar panels.

“They have a lot of really interesting features, but they also have a lot of limitations,” he said.

Petoukhoff said he uses plastic, an organic material, to produce cells that would be cheaper to make and have less waste during production.

These plasmonic structures now contain gold, silver, and indium, a rare element, so they are expensive and not as efficient as current materials, Petoukhoff said. He is working to change that.

He said his work is a combination of theory and experiment. Petoukhoff is trying to test the things he finds in theory to see whether they may be true in application.

“We really don’t know where it’s going right now,” he said. “I hope it takes off, but it might end up dying eventually or becoming a niche.”

He said he hopes to get a faculty position, and continue learning, teaching and doing research.

Morath’s research varies from studying the chemicals released by fungi, to the use of cyanobacteria in biofuel, to studying the effects of a tree eradication project in an urban area, she said.

Morath said as part of the program, she helped create the new exhibit on alternative energy for the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.

She said she studied the effects of fungi, and the volatile organic compounds they produce, on yeast and plants. She hopes to use this information to assist the growth of plants that could be made into biofuel.

“Plants are wonderful little bioreactors, and the idea is to use that wisdom and see how we can take the knowledge plants synthesize and use that to make sustainable fuels,” Anthony said.

Through the program, Anthony said she was able to collaborate with the researchers at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology. She used them to look at the effects of cyanobacteria, or algae, she said.

She said the program gave her the opportunity to network.

“This past summer, we went on a trip to Brazil to meet scientists [and] learn their processes for sugarcane production,” she said. “That’s how I got into the yeast project.”

Anthony said students in the IGERT program have the best of both worlds.

“They get [to] do their Ph.D research with top-notch professors in an energy-related field, and then they’re involved in the extra activities NSF requires us to do,” she said.

Daniel Nolte, a School of Engineering senior, said he enjoyed hearing about the hot-button topic of energy. He was skeptical about the alternative options.

“A lot of people say solar energy is a great alternative, but they don’t realize to take the entire nation and power it with solar energy, you’d need a solar array the size of Utah,” he said.

He said as a senior, he wanted to hear more about graduate research and options.

“Anything that gives me a little bit of a feeling for what [graduate] students are into [is] always helpful for my future planning,” he said.


By Erin Petenko

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