Our guest on this episode of the ECS Podcast is Shirley Meng, professor of NanoEngineering at the University of California, San Diego. Meng founded the Sustainable Power and Energy Center, the goal of which is solving key technical challenges in distributed energy generation, storage, and power management.
Meng is also the principal investigator of Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion research group. Her group is focused on functional nano and micro-scale materials for energy storage and conversion.
She talked to Rob Gerth, ECS’s director of marketing and communications.
Below is an excerpt from the conversation:
Rob Gerth: What influenced you to pursue a life in science?
Shirley Meng: I think that goes back to my childhood. I liked reading a lot and I remember when my dad brought me a book about the Noble Prize winners in physics and chemistry. It was a casual read, talking about their life and what they did; and I was just amazed. I remember clearly even the color of the cover of that book. Many of the people in that book are no longer alive, but we remember them because they discovered something or invented something that really changed the world.
At a later stage, when I took my first flight from China to Singapore, I wanted to know how this metal object can fly in the sky and be so safe and so comfortable. That brought me to engineering. I decided to take materials science and engineering because I wanted to figure out why this metal object could fly so well. From there, I started spending quite a bit of time of semiconductors.
RG: You founded the Sustainable Power and Energy Center at the University of California, San Diego. Tell me a little about that.
SM: The Sustainable Power and Energy Center, or SPEC, started up when I received my tenure about three years ago. And I remember my conversation with the associate dean, “Why should I do this? Why do I want to do this?” Before UCSD hired me, there was no active research tenure-track professors in the area of energy storage. We do have other research areas. For example, solar forecasting and related to renewable energy. When I look at this, I see a lot of the people who work in the research field are very focused on their own narrow field. But energy storage is only one of the components for solving the big challenge we are facing with clean energy and clean water. At that time we also had several other faculty members working in various fields, and I wanted to connect them.
A lot of other university at that time already had energy centers. We were late starters. We did not hire a super famous senior person to the campus to lead this. I thought, why not I give it a try? And I got the support from all these other faculty members and departments, saying that they think it’s important that we build this platform. So the SPEC platform is really a virtual platform for the faculty members to come together and think about big problems in the energy field.
RG: You referred to it as an energy problem. When I think of the average person, which would include me, might think there is no energy problem until the price of gas gets to a certain spot. What would you say the energy problem is?
SM: I think I can answer your question from maybe three different levels. Personally, because I’m an engineer, I love efficiency. So when I look at gasoline car versus electric car, the option is very clear because gasoline, the internal combustion engine is 35 or 40 percent efficient at best. Electric cars typically come in around 90 percent or higher. I wouldn’t say that combustion engines are bad design, but for that period of time, that’s what best they can do, and the electric car did lose out because the battery technology was not ready yet.
The lithium-ion battery is really the young baby among all the battery chemistries. We only commercialized it 26 years ago. So I think that now we need to take a fresh look at this transportation thing.
At the second level, we need to think more. I still connect quite closely to Asia, even though I live in U.S., and I do think a lot of the people I know in U.S., they consider themselves global citizens that care about people around the globe. Then you look at what pollution has done to India and China. And then we all know that it had happened in Los Angeles and it happened in London. We didn’t live through this period ourselves, because already the so-called pollution problem has been partially solved. But the scale of pollution in China and India is different scale, because in the past, London and the U.S., we still have fewer people. So when they created those things, I’m not sure. I just don’t want to take the risk. I’m not sure if the process is reversible or not. A lot of people believe they are, because in Beijing, every time they shut down all the factories for the Olympics, the sky turned blue. So I think we’re playing a very dangerous game if it’s not reversible.
And I think on the highest level, really, I do think that Hawaii, Australia, their electricity price is three times higher than people who live in the mainland US. I think people will start to feel the pain very soon, because those places, the electricity will keep going up. And if we don’t do anything, I think the climate scientists already said that extreme weather is going to be a frequent phenomenon. And I don’t see people who have experienced the last two months—what happened in the world, for the hurricane and the typhoon—don’t believe in climate change. I don’t use the word believe, because climate change is a fact. We don’t need people to believe. I mean, this is happening right in front of us.
RG: How has the progress been regarding women in STEM? Have things gotten better?
SM: In terms of whether it gets better, in the 50 year timeframe, yes, it has gotten better. When I was a student in Singapore, I’ve never met any female professors. But today, the percentage, I believe, in engineering, if we don’t count bioengineering, is probably slightly less than 20 percent. In other engineering fields like mechanical or electrical engineering, the number is lower. So in the last 10 years, I don’t think that the situation has been improved a lot.
It’s stalled. In fact, many of us doing the research and trying to find what the root causes are and what could be changed. So from my own personal experience, I do think that university departments show support. I had a child about eight years ago, and I remember that I had to bring my kid with me to work sometimes. So the office and the lab are separate. So it’s not a problem to bring the kind into the office, but to have colleagues who actually understand the situation. I was just very lucky because we have senior colleagues who really encouraged me, they always call my son that nano baby because I’m in the Department of Nanoengineering and he was so tiny.
So for me, that kinds of support is important. I also think that for my female students and other female scientists that I meet in the professional society, I always remind myself that they look at me. I wouldn’t say I’m a role model, but they look at me. I think how we handle this kind of situation has an impact, maybe when I do it other people would think, “Yeah, if I plan it properly maybe I can do it.”
I think that the career pathways for the female STEM field, female professors or researchers, we do face certain ceilings. I mean, this is also a debatable issue. I do think that holding different standards for a men and women probably is the biggest obstacle. I think its shifting criteria when you face a man versus a woman.