After four years of postgraduate research in the field of advanced rechargeable lithium batteries, Chinese PhD student Jianying Tracy Ji is getting a taste of how high-end science meets entrepreneurial capitalism in the USA's technology crucible, Silicon Valley.
Ji, chosen as this year's Boeing Engineering Student of the Year at graduate level, is taking a break from her doctorate studies at Washington State University to attend a scholarship programme at Singularity University, an institution set up in 2009 to bring graduates and business leaders together on short-term courses to "facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity's grand challenges". Eighty graduate students from 37 countries are participating in the summer programme.
The course has caused Ji to have second thoughts about her career path. "My interest has always been in research, and before this I wanted to become a professor," she says. "But now maybe I am thinking about setting up my own company, or going out and looking at industry. There are a lot of very successful companies here in Silicon Valley."
Ji, who graduated from and completed a Masters degree at Beijing University of Chemical Technology before heading to the USA in 2009, hopes to complete her PhD next May.
The Boeing judges recognised her "significant achievements in creating a new and novel electrolyte with ultra-flexibility and high conductivity based on a natural plant protein". Her research saw her focusing on "unique materials blending, innovative manufacturing methods and performance validation testing of soy protein, combined with traditionally used electrolyte materials".
In addition to her work on battery technology, Ji's research may also lead to innovations in the manufacture of advanced, low-density, flexible polymer foams that can save weight when incorporated into components for aircraft interiors, said the judges.
Ji, who describes winning the award as a "huge honour", was one of 50 graduate students from around the world invited to attend the inaugural World Materials Summit Student Congress in 2011.