We hope you enjoyed our first Q&A with our contributors, Sally and Anastasia. Today I chat with another contributor, Jena Barnes, who is a Stanford alum in Materials Science and currently a PhD student at Duke. Jena is passionate about increasing diversity in STEM fields and she finds the best content on this topic to share through our social media feeds. Though I’ve exchanged many emails with Jena, this was the first time talking to her in person—which was so fun. AND she introduced me to aloe juice, which is delicious. Go try it.
Q. When did you first become interested in science?
I just remember being very curious about things [as a kid]. My favorite word was ‘why’: why is it like this why does it work like that? [My parents were like] enough already! It must have been when I was around 10 or 12, my parents got me a subscription to National Geographic. I was obsessed with it – and still am! It broadened my knowledge base and I learned what was going on in the world, what people were studying, and what the interesting problems were. I’ve known since then that I wanted to do something related to science and engineering.
Q. What is the focus of your current research?
I would say the general area of my research is using nanostructured materials for energy conversion processes. The lab that I work in is the Thermodynamics and Sustainable Energy Lab and most of the research we do is focused toward renewable energy applications. I mostly work with plasmonic materials and substrates as well as nanoparticles. Right now I’m trying to build a reactor that makes hydrogen for fuel cells. [The problem with the current process for making hydrogen] is that you have to heat up the materials to 300 C, which uses a lot of energy. Where is that energy coming from to heat that up? Fossil fuels. So our idea is to use these plasmonic substrates as a fuel-efficient source to jump-start the reaction [to produce hydrogen].
Q. What recent breakthrough or discovery in science are you really excited about?
Hands down, gravitational waves! I think it’s probably the most important discovery of the last hundred years. I really like what I’m doing, but if I could go back and choose a different field, I would probably be an astrophysicist.
Q. What is your favorite class you’ve ever taken?
Probably physical chemistry in undergrad. It was really hard, but it was the first time I was able to fundamentally understand chemistry from a physics stand point. Like, why do molecules bind the way they do? Why do their vibrations matter? I took that my senior year of college and I remember thinking: Freshman should be taking this! It seems counter-intuitive, but that’s actually where you should start in chemistry, from foundational topics. I actually think people should start by learning quantum mechanics because of this class. Then you can really understand what’s happening and why it’s happening.
(Heidi also took physical chemistry with the amazing Jenn Dionne, who we interviewed in 2015!)
Q. It’s a day in lab, what are you drinking? (Ahem, not at the lab bench…obviously…)
Lately I’ve been drinking aloe juice. It’s a juice that has these big chunks of aloe in it. I buy it at Costco in these big packs…