Jeffrey Lopez Ph.D.

portrait of Lopez

Postdoc at MIT and will be an assistant professor Chemical and Biological Engineering Department at Northwestern University starting fall 2021.

What would you like to share about your background and/or experiences in the McNair program?

I'm originally from North Platte, NE and before I got to UNL I'd never met anyone with a PhD. McNair was helpful in breaking down the information barrier about graduate school and helped to make the process of preparing and applying much more straightforward.

Do you feel the McNair Program prepared you for graduate study and research at the graduate level? If so, how?

The McNair Scholars Program was extremely useful in preparing me for graduate school. My 2.5 years of undergrad research experience gave me a solid foundation of lab skills that made the transition to lab work in grad school very easy.

What do you like most about working in your current position?

I'll be starting my new position as an Assistant Professor in a few months and I'm really looking forward to working with more students and helping to train future generations of scientists and engineers. The opportunity to mentor students is what has kept me in academia and I can't wait to get started!

Looking back at your time as a McNair Scholar, was there anything that prepared you for your current position?

I think its really tough to look that far back and make any direct connections. Certainly, McNair helped me to prepare for graduate school, where I started to prepare for a faculty career, and graduate school prepared me for my postdoc where this preparation was finished.

As an undergraduate, did you have any positive mentor experiences that shaped your outlook on mentoring?

My involvement with the Nebraska Human Resources Institute (NHRI) at UNL has had a huge influence on my outlook on mentoring. I learned a lot from Prof. Lindsay Hastings about the positive impact mentors can have on mentees, and I was able to build my skills as a mentor through my relationship with my Junior Counselor, Taylen.

I was also fortunate to have a great research mentor, Dr. Ravi Saraf, in Chemical Engineering. Working in Dr. Saraf's lab helped me to build practical skills, but more importantly talking with Dr. Saraf about science built my passion for research and helped me to think about research questions in new ways.

What advice would you give in regard to searching for graduate programs? What characteristics did you look for in a school/how did you search for programs?

Graduate school takes a long time. I would advise students to look for programs where they are going to be holistically happy (department culture, research fit, advisor fit, location, etc). Ultimately you're choosing to spend 5+ years of your life working with a specific group of people and living in a certain location. Its important that you're happy and healthy so that the process is sustainable for you.

Did you go directly from your bachelor's degree to enrolling in a graduate program without stopping out?  If so, what advantages do you think that provided? If not, why was this the right choice for you?

I did and this was the norm for most of my classmates in graduate school. I think the advantage of doing this is that you're still very much in the habit of going to class and doing homework (which is what the first year of graduate school looks like). This can make the transition easier and since it's a long process it was nice to get started right away.

However, everyone I've met who took time in between to work has also benefited greatly from their industry experience and brings a really unique perspective that many of us who went straight through didn't have.

Looking back, was graduate school more or less demanding than you expected?

Graduate school was hard. Courses were tough. Research can be discouraging at times. I didn't have many expectations about how demanding my program would be, but it certainly took a lot of work.

What was the most rewarding part of graduate school?

For me, the most rewarding part of graduate school was getting to work on exciting science with so many excellent collaborators. Meetings to discuss solutions to problems and new ideas are still my favorite part of the work. Its especially rewarding to help new students build this skills.

What experiences did you seek out as a graduate student to prepare you for working in your current career?

I was fortunate that my advisor, Prof. Zhenan Bao, was very supportive in my preparation. About half of our group was made up of postdocs, so from the very beginning I got to watch others go through the faculty search process and learn from them. Furthermore, Stanford offered a "Preparing for Faculty Careers" seminar course that formally covered a lot of the ins and outs of the process. The American Chemical Society POLY division also hosted a workshop on the topic that was very helpful for my preparation.

What's your best advice for McNair scholars about graduate school?

Enjoy it. It's a really fun time to get to learn a lot and explore new things.

How has your life changed since you earned your PhD?

I am just finishing up my postdoc at MIT and for the most part my work here looks a lot like the end of my PhD. I'm doing independent research, collaborating with others in my group and at our institution. The biggest change has been increasing independence and opportunities to help drive applications for funding. This is only going to increase now that I'm starting my own group.

Are you currently involved in research, and if so, can you briefly explain your research? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?

My work is focused on developing new materials for lithium-ion batteries and related energy storage applications. Specifically, I work on making new molecules and developing and understanding of how the changes in chemistry impact performance metrics such as energy density, battery lifetime, or safety.

I'm really proud of some of the more fundamental work that I've done in this space in identifying key materials parameters that enable more stable cycling of Li metal electrodes. These electrodes have 10x the capacity of current technologies but are highly unstable. Unlocking Li metal would be game changing for electric vehicles, grid storage, and consumer electronics, and I'm excited to be contributing to this field.

What, if any, advice would you give student who are thinking about stopping out before beginning graduate school?

If this is what fits best for you then you should absolutely take some time. Maybe you're not sure that grad school is the right fit for you or you don't know exactly what you want to pursue. Its great to make sure the choice to go to grad school is the right one before making it. I would advise students thinking about this to be intentional about their decisions. If you really want to explore the option of graduate school while taking some time to do something else after undergrad, make sure that you're actually taking the time to think about your options instead of just putting it off.

Do you have any advice for students on the fence about applying for the McNair Program?

Apply. There isn't really any reason not to. Its only going to help you no matter what you end up doing.

Are there any final words of wisdom you'd like to share with our McNair Scholars?

Take the time to decide what you want and then go after it. At the end of the day, no one else can make these decisions for you. These goals can always change, but having a target can make navigating complex choices much easier.