Welcome to ONSF's new interview series with past award recipients! This series will explore our scholars’ experiences after they won their awards, how things may have turned out differently from their original proposals, and what they are doing now. Our first interviewee is Jacob Florian, our 2021 Churchill Scholar!  The Churchill Scholarship funds one year of graduate research and study in a STEM field at the University of Cambridge. Jacob graduated with a BSE in Chemical Engineering and applied for the Churchill to work with Prof. Jacqueline Cole, the head of Molecular Engineering in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

How did your scholarship or fellowship experience evolve over time? What, if anything, was different from your original proposal?

My project changed from my initial proposal, which focused on data mining for electron microscopy images. We found out that the project I had created was not feasible because not enough detail was being captured using our group’s software. After my first month at Cambridge, I came up with a new project that would screen the activity of previously-synthesized molecular catalysts using electronic-structure descriptors. Towards the end of my scholarship, I was also able to use conference travel grants provided by Churchill College to talk about my research in Barcelona, Spain and Erice, Italy.

It is impressive that you were able to pivot to a new project after learning your original plan wasn't achievable. Could you tell us more about how you overcame that obstacle?

Yes. Initially I had drafted a proposal to use our group's software, ImageDataExtractor, to correlate catalyst particle shape, size, and distribution to activity/selectivity from electron microscopy images. We were interested in catalyst nanoparticles in reaction environments, often on a support. However; these images often had very low contrast between particles and background, making it very hard to correctly partition the particles using the current implementation of the lab software. And it would likely take more than a year for me to improve the code to the point where we could automate the extraction and segmentation of catalyst particles from images in literature.

Instead, I decided to come up with a new project based on my interest in electrocatalysis. I took the first month to read as much as possible so I could figure out some key questions that I could address computationally on the timeline of a one year masters project. I decided to focus on the electrocatalytic CO2 reduction reaction, because there is a large existing collection of experimentally tested catalysts, and it has promising applications for carbon capture and solar fuels. My process was to draft a project idea, try to come up with reasons why it wouldn't be feasible, and then iterate based on my feedback. This included discussions with Jacqui, group members, friends, and other Cambridge professors. I decided to try to rationalize the electrocatalytic activity trends of a specific set of molecular electrocatalysts -- Mn-Carbonyl complexes -- by correlating electronic structure descriptors to electrochemical activity. I felt that this project addressed a gap in the literature; specifically because we compared a large set of catalysts and used those correlations to derive physically meaningful models that can be used to guide rational catalyst design.

What was the most important or meaningful part of your year at Cambridge?

The most meaningful part of my year at Cambridge was definitely the people that I met. I became close with a few of the other Churchill Scholars, and they were some of the most interesting people I have ever met. I enjoyed talking to them about their research and just hanging out. I’m really grateful to the Churchill foundation for giving me this opportunity -- the time I spent at Cambridge greatly exceeded my expectations.What comes next for you as you complete your scholarship/fellowship experience?I started my PhD in Chemical Engineering at Stanford this fall. I’m planning on continuing to do research in the electrocatalysis area, because it is a fascinating topic which has an important role in future energy infrastructure. Efficiently electrifying just a few key chemical reactions will have a significant impact on carbon emissions. I also think combining experimental research with computation/data science will lead to much greater insight than either alone, and I want to mold my PhD project to this.

As you look back, what advice do you have for prospective applicants for this scholarship/fellowship?

I would advise applicants to explore your motivation for why you want to pursue a particular research project or field of study. And don’t underestimate yourself.