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Jennifer Dionne

Kate Maher PhotoPresident Obama selects GCEP investigator for early career award

Jennifer Dionne is an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University and a lead investigator on the GCEP effort Upconverting Electrodes for Improved Solar Energy Conversion.

She has been selected to receive the 2014 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the U.S. government's highest honor for scientists and engineers early in their independent research careers.

"The impressive achievements of these early-stage scientists and engineers are promising indicators of even greater successes ahead," President Obama said of the 102 PECASE honorees. "We are grateful for their commitment to generating the scientific and technical advancements that will ensure America's global leadership for many years to come."

Winners will be recognized at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. later this year.

Dionne was named one of MIT Technology Review's top "innovators under 35" in 2011 and has received numerous honors, including the National Science CAREER, Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator, and Hellman Faculty Scholar awards.

Dionne earned her B.S. degrees in physics and systems & electrical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. In 2009, she received a Ph. D. in applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, working with Harry Atwater (also a GCEP investigator).

She took some time to answer a few questions for us:

Please describe your GCEP research and how it could potentially lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar cells, including solar-to-electric and solar-to-chemical conversion technologies, are unable to utilize photons with energies below the bandgap of the device. Unfortunately, this physics means that a typical single-junction solar cell wastes approximately 30-50% of the sun's power. Alberto Salleo (my GCEP co-PI) and I are investigating new upconverting materials that allow solar cells to use below-bandgap photons. Placed behind a cell, these upconverters convert lower-energy, transmitted photons to higher-energy, above-bandgap photons that can be absorbed by the cell and contribute to photocurrent. Our aim is to make a high-efficiency upconverting electrode that allows single-junction solar cells to exceed the Shockley-Quiesser thermodynamic limit of 30%.

Could you briefly tell us what were some of the key milestones in your career that led to you becoming such a well-recognized researcher?

The term "well-recognized" can be interpreted in many ways: I am one of the few blonde professors in our field! More seriously, the research milestones I am most proud of include demonstration of negative refraction at visible wavelengths, development of a subwavelength silicon electro-optic modulator, development of quantum plasmonic materials and metamaterials, design of new optical tweezers for nano-specimen trapping, and demonstration of a metamaterial fluid. My group also has several upcoming results in upconversion, catalysis, and nano-optical tomography that really excite me.

 Jennifer Dionne and her research team
Stanford assistant professor Jennifer Dionne (right) and her research team members at the controls of the Titan environmental scanning transmission electron microscope.
Photo credit: Andrea Baldi/Jennifer Dionne

But these milestones could not have been reached without the support of many fantastic colleagues and role models that I've had throughout my academic career. And indeed, I consider my interactions with these people to be the true milestones that have led to my success. My graduate school advisor (Harry Atwater at Caltech), my postdoc advisor (Paul Alivisatos at UC-Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), and my collaborators Albert Polman (FOM Institute AMOLF) and Henri Lezec (National Institute of Standards and Technology) all shared with me their infectious enthusiasm for science, and provided me with the necessary tools to explore and develop my own research directions. I also could not have reached these milestones without the enthusiasm, dedication, and creativity of my students and postdocs at Stanford.

What impact did receipt of support from GCEP have on your research goals?

Support from GCEP has been extraordinarily valuable in terms of launching my research in solar energy. Before coming to Stanford, my research experience in solar was limited: I had extensive training in optics, but little experience in making devices that could work with non-coherent, low-power illumination like that from the sun. However, I was really passionate to build a group that could apply cutting-edge optics concepts to solar devices to significantly improve their efficiency. Thankfully, GCEP was willing to invest in our high-risk/high-reward research, and gave my group our first source of support in solar energy. GCEP's initial funding has now laid the foundation for almost half of my group's research and has opened many new research directions.

Now that you have been selected to receive a 2014 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, what directions do you foresee your research will take in the future?

Receiving the PECASE is a huge honor, and I am grateful to my Air Force Office of Scientific Research and National Science Foundation program managers who nominated me and supported my early-career research efforts. My PECASE will be funded through the Department of Defense and will enable several new, exciting research directions in nanophotonics. For example, I'm eager to explore non-reciprocal light propagation, i.e., "one-way" propagation of photons, similar to the "one-way" flow of electrons in an electronic diode. This research could lay the foundation for an entirely new class of optical materials and devices with very unusual and enabling directional optical behavior.

What would our readers be surprised to learn about you or your research?

Before pursuing a Ph.D. in applied physics, I had also seriously considered a career in oceanography. One of my first research experiences as an undergraduate was working in an oceanography lab at the University of Rhode Island. I was attracted by the notions of research cruises and beachfront labs. Soon after starting the program, I discovered that I get extremely seasick. But I still loved working in the lab with the wave tanks to gain a better understanding of ocean-front formation and air-sea interactions. Arguably, this first research experience incited a passion for research and, although it hinted that "the life aquatic" wasn't for me, the "life scientific" certainly was!

Jennifer Dionne Group

Jennifer Dionne (center) with members of her research group.
Photo credit: Joel Simon

As a young professor, does that help you relate in different ways with your students?

I hope so. Since there isn't a huge age gap between my students and me, my advising philosophy is less "professor-student" oriented, and more "coach-football team" oriented. My group and I are a team: While I may make the calls, my students and postdocs turn my suggestions into beautiful plays on the field. Every day, I learn as much from my group (if not more) as they learn from me.

While I try to be the "cool young professor," I'm sure my students just give me kudos for being "young-at-heart." Probably that's all that matters, whether you're 30 or 80!

What advice would you give to students, especially young women, who are considering a technical career in the energy industry?

To paraphrase Conan O'Brien, "Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen." Students interested in pursuing a career in energy will find that they have the potential to address what may well be some of the most pressing problems of our time. If they are passionate about solving these problems, willing to work hard, and able to approach situations with an open and creative mind, they will be very successful.



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