Smith Research Group: Long-term Storage of Sustainable Energy & Current Environmental Challenges
Research by: Sophie Campbell, Written by: Jacqueline Omdara
For more information about Rodney Smith and the chemical research the Smith Research Group does at the University of Waterloo, check out their website and email below!
Q: Can you explain the focus of your research in a few sentences?
A: My research examines how imperfections in solid state materials influence the ability of these materials to catalyze chemical transformations. Such electron transfer reactions are critical to long-term storage of sustainable energy.
Q: What motivated you to go into research (and specifically into chemistry)?
A: The feeling of discovery attracts me to research. Every day is exciting because there is the possibility that you’ll discover something new. I specialized in chemistry because of its practicality: it is a field where you simultaneously learn and apply knowledge.
Q: What do you find to be the most interesting aspect of your research?
A: The hunt for the proverbial “needle in a haystack”. In my field of research, it is possible that a tiny fraction of the material is responsible for all catalytic behavior that is observed, which introduces the risk that any structural information we collect is not relevant. I have a lot of fun trying to determine whether we are being misled by the information available to us.
Q: What are some examples of waste-to-product pathways that you investigate?
A: My team has primarily focused on the oxidation of water to oxygen, which provides the protons and electrons that are necessary for fuel production. We have also begun studying the reaction of carbon dioxide with solid surfaces.
Q: What do you think is the greatest environmental challenge we face as a society?
A: Convincing everyone of the importance of their personal decisions and interactions. How each of us chooses to invest our time, money, and political capital shapes the world around us. It may not feel like it at times, but the world is driven by its citizens: global markets and politics respond to our investments.
Q: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number and extent of changes needed to correct our trajectory on this planet? If so, how do you counteract that feeling?
A: I don’t. There are always problems, but there are also always solutions being developed and deployed. I have faith that we’ll overcome any challenges ahead of us.
Q: Do you have any advice for young people trying to enact positive environmental change in our world? (This can be career-related, volunteer-related, or lifestyle-related)
A: Bring about change by building, not destroying. Attacks on ideas, technologies, industries, or people generate negative reactions that impede progress by causing conflict. Establish a well-researched positive vision and invest your time pursuing it and communicating the benefits of it.
Q: Finally, for our followers/readers who are interested in research or graduate studies: are you open to co-ops or new graduate students?
A: I consider every graduate student application that crosses my desk. Beyond an understanding of chemistry, the key things I look for are signs of self-motivation and evidence that the candidate has taken responsibility for their education. I do typically hire a few co-op students each year.