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Baratunde Cola is Engineering a Sustainable Future
Baratunde Cola, a former Vanderbilt University football player works as a mechanical engineering researcher and mentor.
Credit: gatech.edu

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

As he works to develop new, efficient energy technologies, Georgia Institute of Technology assistant professor of mechanical engineering Baratunde Cola devotes time to developing future scientists. Cola teaches and directs graduate students, postdocs and research scientists who work in Georgia Tech's NanoEngineered Systems and Transport lab.

He also uses art to excite and teach high school students about the possibilities of nanotechnology and sustainability. The 31-year-old's honors include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Young Faculty Award and the National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Cola's laboratory research, funded by the National Science Foundation as well, focuses on flexible, thermo-electrochemical cells that can be used to cost effectively convert waste heat to electricity. He also has worked at the forefront of research on carbon nanotube thermal interface materials for over five years.

Along with collaborators at Purdue University and Georgia Tech, he has several patent applications related to these materials. Here, he answers the ten ScienceLives questions.

Name: Baratunde Cola
Age: 31
Institution: Georgia Institute of Technology
Field of Study: Mechanical engineering with a focus on nanoengineering of thermal systems

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
My dad is a mechanical engineer, which was very influential in my choosing to major in mechanical engineering. However, I had a great appreciation in adolescence for football, which I ended up playing in college, so I can't say that I saw my future as a mechanical engineering researcher at the time.

I give credit to a great mentor for introducing me to the exciting possibilities of nanotechnology. I was hooked once I learned that diamond nanostructures can be heated to a point at which they will emit electrons and produce electrical power — I'm still fascinated by this today!

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
There is so much to choose from!

I wanted to get the best education I could, and I wanted to play football in the Southeastern Conference. I joined the football team at Vanderbilt University as a freshman. I eventually became a starter at fullback and was awarded a scholarship. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, I had one more year of eligibility to play college football.

Consequently, I enrolled in the masters of mechanical engineering degree program at Vanderbilt, which did not have a thesis requirement. A mentor advised me to consider switching to a thesis degree program after the season, because it would open additional doors to me in the future, including the pursuit of a Ph.D. with fellowship support. He was right!

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
I can't recall my first scientific experiment. I was always curious about how things worked as a child, so I would often take things apart to study them. I was probably more of an engineer looking to invent new things, even at an early age.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?
I can't say enough about how much I enjoy the freedom to develop my own ideas and answer questions that interest me. I also enjoy the many opportunities I have to interact with the brightest students and researchers around the world.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?
I've encountered effective researchers with a variety of personality types. However, I would say a balance of being creative, process-focused and organized is a good start.

What are the societal benefits of your research?
Our nanoengineering research is developing cost-effective means to generate electricity from heat that is freely available in our environment or as a wasted byproduct in industry. This work will hopefully lead to new jobs and help our country to become more energy independent. Our work also helps to increase the functionality and reliability of electronic devices.

Introducing nanoscience to high-school environmental science and art students may help to increase interest in careers as scientist and engineers, which is a national need at the moment. The nano-inspired art produced by the students enables them to see and feel energy as well as communicate the potential benefits of nanotechnology and sustainability to the general public.

A few of the student's art pieces will be showcased at the 2012 U.S. Science and Engineering Festival and Expo in Washington, D.C.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?
I have been fortunate to have many great mentors. My parents are not researchers by profession, but I give them, and my general experiences growing up in Pensacola, Fla., a lot of credit for shaping how I think about research.

My dad engaged me in critical thinking at a very early age, and often, which gave me confidence in the strength of my own ideas. My mom made sure I gained diverse experiences in my youth, including sports, camps and the journey to becoming an Eagle Scout, which I now draw from in my creative research process.

My graduate advisors were very inspirational to me as well.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?
High school students I meet often tell me that they would have never thought instruments used in nanoscience research could be so expensive. I imagine that others outside of the field might have similar thoughts. Some high-end electron microscopes can have a sticker price well over 5 million dollars!

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
I would save a very interesting work of art a Georgia Tech undergraduate mechanical engineering student produced for me. I invited this student to join my lab for research after his very impressive performance in my heat transfer class. He didn't miss a single point all semester! The student's artwork was inspired by scanned electron microscope images of nanostructures that are made in my lab, and the application of these nanostructures to help keep computer chips cool.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
My life is filled with music from a mix of genres. My current office rotation includes songs by JayZ, Drake, and Coldplay. JayZ is definitely on the dial before I teach or give a seminar because the energy in his lyrics gets me ready to perform. I usually listen to the CINEMIX radio station on iTunes or classical music when I'm writing a paper or proposal. I listen to the news on national public radio during my commute to and from work.

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.