Convergence research is a means of solving complex problems by integrating knowledge, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation. By embracing convergence in scientific research, Carolina aims to tackle the world’s biggest problems by fostering greater multi-disciplinary collaboration among researchers, students and entrepreneurs in an effort to speed technological breakthroughs and the application of new discoveries. The UNC College of Arts and Sciences (with generous support from the Professor James Talmage Dobbins Sr. Memorial Fund) and the UNC Chemistry Department have jointly funded the UNC Graduate Student Convergence Fellowship. In the interests of furthering convergent science at UNC, https://campaign.unc.edu/story/the-great-convergence/, recipients of the Convergence Fellowship are asked to spend ~1-2 hours per week in a lab or group outside of their own research group in Chemistry.
Aaron Taggart, graduate student in the group of Professor Jim Cahoon in the UNC Chemistry Department, has been selected by the UNC Energy Frontier Research Center, EFRC, Executive Committee as the 2018-2019 recipient of the UNC Convergence Fellowship. The EFRC Executive Committee was impressed by the high quality of Aaron’s research, by his service to the Center (as a Research Team Coordinator and nationally as a Department of Energy Early Career Network representative), and by his strong collaborations with groups outside of Chemistry. Aaron has a B.S. in Chemistry from SUNY Binghamton, and is in his fourth year of graduate school at UNC. His UNC EFRC research is focused on the design of photoelectrode materials and interfacing them with dye molecules to help drive artificial photosynthesis – a process that captures the energy in sunlight and stores it as fuels in the form of chemical bonds. Aaron says that renewable energy research has been a long-term interest: “One of largest challenges facing our society in the coming decades is developing efficient and reliable means of storing renewable energy. Starting as an undergraduate, I wanted to make a difference in this field. At SUNY Binghamton, NY, I researched dye-sensitized solar cells with a focus on improving the charge transport properties of these materials. I continued on this path in graduate school at UNC in my research with the Energy Frontier Research Center.” Upon completion of his PhD, Aaron plans to pursue a career in either industry or a National Laboratory where he can continue to focus on developing and improving renewable energy technologies.
In the course of his graduate research at UNC, Aaron has pursued active collaborations with scientists from multiple disciplines in other groups and departments, within and outside of the EFRC. In developing new photoelectrode materials, there are countless combinations of materials and dyes that can be investigated; far too many to examine in a single laboratory. Aaron has found a solution in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, SOP, where Professor Alex Tropsha’s group studies the use of informatics to discover and screen new drug molecules. Informatics is the science of processing massive quantities of data in a meaningful way. For Aaron, this means evaluating the properties of thousands of candidate materials and dyes to select those combinations that have the highest performance potential. This convergent approach of repurposing SOP informatics algorithms to a chemistry materials problem has enabled thousands of possible electrode combinations to be narrowed down to a handful of promising materials and molecules, greatly accelerating the discovery process.
Once promising materials are identified and synthesized, Aaron and the Cahoon research group leverage a strong ongoing collaboration with the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory (CHANL) in the UNC Department of Applied Sciences. This partnership with expert staff at CHANL, and access to the state-of-the-art instrumentation capabilities, is critical in characterization of the physical properties of new electrode materials.
For the synthesis of dye molecules, Aaron has turned to another EFRC collaboration with Professor John Reynold’s group in the Chemistry Department at Georgia Institute of Technology. Through their knowledge of organic synthesis, the Georgia Tech group has created dyes that attach to the materials being developed at UNC, greatly advancing research in artificial photosynthesis.
These collaborations outside of Aaron’s home department have been essential to his graduate research and he reports that that “collaborating with other researchers has been one of my most positive experiences at UNC.” Congratulations to Aaron Taggart, first recipient of the UNC Convergence Fellowship.