Playing with Perovskites

Becky Belisle ‘10

You graduated in 2010.  What have you been up to since leaving Olin?

Since Olin I've completed a Fulbright studying bees, spent a year trying to keep cells from sticking to things at the Wyss Institute, made hundreds of solar cells at Stanford, and have probably consumed around 5000 cups of coffee. 

Tell us more about your research. 

Since 2012, I've been working on my PhD in Materials Science in the McGehee Group at Stanford University. Our group has a long tradition of working on new solar cell technologies and my research definitely fits that theme. I work on a new solar cell technology often referred to as "perovskite solar cells." Perovskites are a large class of materials, but recently researchers have been able to identify particular material chemistries that make really good absorber materials for solar cells. We're really excited about these materials, because we're able to use them to make solar cells that are both very efficient and very cheap, which is kind of the dream for photovoltaics.

My particular research is more focused on the underlying physics of why these solar cells work so well, and how we can design the entire solar cell to make them even better. It's a lot more lasers and a lot fewer bees than my previous research projects, but I really love it.     

You hope to complete your PhD next spring.  Does it feel like a PhD takes FOREVER?

 I'm starting the fifth year of my PhD this fall, and fingers crossed I'll be defending this time next year. More than feeling like forever, I'm generally surprised by how quickly the past four years have gone by. Sure, there are times when it seems like things just drag on (when experiments don't work or when you are taking a particularly tedious course), but overall I find there is enough diversity in what I do to keep me interested. I also take the perspective that grad school is all about learning, so if I'm bored or feeling stuck, I'll give myself the space to go read something different or try a new experiment or really do anything that reminds me that I'm here first and foremost because I want to learn.  

What was the biggest surprise about going to grad school?

When I think about my grad school experience, I think I am most surprised by the fact that I've become more of a device physicist than a biologist during my time in graduate school. Before coming to Stanford, all of my research experiences had been at the interface between biology and materials science, and I thought that's what I would pursue my PhD in as well. However, right when I got to Stanford some of the first papers on perovskite solar cells were being published, and I read them and was hooked. It seemed like such a unique experience to be part of this new field, and I'm happy to have fallen down the electronic materials rabbit hole. I'm not sure if I'll stay here forever though, I'm still thinking of doing something with a more biological twist for my postdoc.

Any other exciting things you’ve done since leaving Olin?

I'm not going to lie, part of the draw of coming to Stanford for graduate school was the opportunity to live and play in California for a few years, and I think I've taken advantage of that.  Since moving out here I've done a lot more backpacking and climbing and general frolicking in the outdoor wonderland that is California. It also helps that I have a great community of friends (many Olin alumnae!) and a really supportive partner (Jona Raphael, '09) out here in the bay area that are always up for heading to Yosemite or Tahoe for the weekend. 

Advice for someone considering grad school?

Come up with a strong motivation for why you want to go to graduate school before you apply, and continually remind yourself of what that reason is while you're there. For me, it was deciding that I wanted to become a professor that encouraged me to commit to a PhD program, and having that as a motivation has been really helpful. Graduate school can be tremendously fun, but I think it is rarely easy. You'll see lots of your friends working less and making way more money than you, so if you don't have a good reason to be there I think it is tougher to weather the difficult parts. That being said, I really do believe graduate school can be tremendously fun. I'm continually thrilled that I get paid to ask questions and learn new things, and fingers crossed I'll get to keep doing that after Stanford.   

Posted in: Graduate School