Partnership aims to increase diversity in materials science

The Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) are embarking on a research collaboration designed to increase diversity in the field of materials science.  

The collaboration will support cross-institutional scientific partnerships between students and faculty at Cornell and N.C. A&T, a historically Black university that produces more African American engineers than any other university in the United States.

Starting in October, N.C. A&T students will visit Cornell to take advantage of CCMR’s state-of-the-art instrumentation and to work with Cornell faculty who are world leaders in electron microscopy, optics and electrocatalysis.

Dhananjay Kumar, professor of mechanical engineering at N.C. A&T, is principal investigator of the project, which is funded by a three-year, $800,000 seed grant from the National Science Foundation through the Partnerships for Research in Education and Materials program (PREM). The award is intended to support discoveries in materials research while solidifying a pathway for students from underrepresented groups to enter the field of materials science and engineering.

“The barriers that have made it difficult for African Americans and others to contribute to materials science research are both systemic and institutional,” said Emmanuel Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation. “What makes this program so exciting is that it takes an institutional, systemic approach to bringing down those barriers. Cornell is honored to be a part of the effort to broaden the community contributing to scientific innovation and to be partnering with N.C. A&T.”

The project is aimed at developing low-dimensional titanium oxynitride-based materials capable of supporting energy conversion reactions.

CCMR director Frank Wise, M.S. ’86, Ph.D. ’88, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor in the College of Engineering, said he is optimistic that the scientific relationships fostered by the project will advance a culture of inclusivity at Cornell, and he hopes the experience will attract some N.C. A&T students to Cornell for graduate or postdoctoral studies.

“N.C. A&T has an incredible wealth of strong students from underrepresented groups,” Wise said. “I believe that students will experience the excitement of working in a big interdisciplinary research group of the kind that CCMR supports, and this experience will prepare them to continue on that path. Our goal is to build a strong relationship with N.C. A&T for everyone’s benefit.”

“The student and faculty exchange proposed will put N.C. A&T into a new and higher orbit of research excellence that would have taken years to achieve had we gone alone,” said John Kizito, professor of mechanical engineering at N.C. A&T and a collaborator on the project.

Cornell is currently participating in two other PREM partnerships. In July, NSF awarded $3.5 million to Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College to develop new oxide-based interface materials in partnership with Cornell’s Platform for the Accelerated Realization, Analysis, and Discovery of Interface Materials (PARADIM).

“Enhancing diversity in science has major societal implications,” said PARADIM co-director Darrell Schlom, the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Industrial Chemistry in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“We are excited by the opportunities provided by this partnership to empower Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College students who have interests in discovery to pursue their passion and harness the latest methods to invent better materials – faster, more energy efficient and greener – for the next generation of electronics,” Schlom said.

In 2018, the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) and three institutions in Puerto Rico, Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Cupey Campus and Gurabo Campus, and the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, established the Center for Interfacial Electrochemistry of Energy Materials (PREM-CiE2M) with a six-year, $3.9 million award to develop fundamental understanding of charge transfer mechanisms and electrochemical processes in nanostructured materials. 

“These opportunities through PREM nurture a new generation of scientists and engineers that will be in high demand at synchrotron and other large facilities worldwide,” said CHESS director Joel Brock. “We are thrilled to partner with our faculty and student collaborators in Puerto Rico, and we truly benefit from their hands-on work at CHESS.”

J. Edward Anthony is a writer for the office of the vice president for research and innovation.

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Becka Bowyer