Ms. Jiawei Lai is a Ph.D. candidate from Fujian, China, who is researching 2D materials in the Ajayan Group. When she was planning her next steps after her undergraduate education, Ms. Lai asked for guidance from uncle, who is a researcher in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He said that her plans for a career in academia had to include a Ph.D., but Jiawei needed further research experience beyond her Bachelor’s degree, in order to get into a good Ph.D. program. “I applied to Rice’s MS program in Materials Science, and the department offered me a place in their Professional Master’s program, instead. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but after reading about it, decided it made a lot of sense for my career path.”
“A lot of people think that you have to choose between going into a professional master’s vs. a Ph.D. track, but in my experience, the opposite is true.” Jiawei says that there’s an impression that Professional Master’s programs are strictly industry-oriented, and that going into one will actually make it harder to move over to a Ph.D. track, but Rice’s Professional Master’s program has a long history of students going on into Ph.D. research. “Professional Master’s students at Rice really get a chance to figure out which way is best for them: industry or academia. In fact, many of my Master’s course credits transferred directly into my Ph.D. requirements.”
As for “why Rice?” – Ms. Lai explicitly targeted the Materials Science and NanoEngineering (MSNE) department at Rice University because of its worldwide reputation in 2D materials – already a focus for her in her undergraduate studies – and because the Professional Master’s program includes the opportunity to work closely with a professor and learn how to use the instruments that are critical to doing research, and then the flexibility to do as much research as you want to do. “I’m VERY interested in wearable electronics, and everything in my project plays into that. We’re doing 2D for FETs (field effect transistors), sensors – full systems, really, that include sensing, computing, wireless communication and electrical storage.”
The Ajayan Lab in MSNE is the ideal setting for Jiawei. “I chose him as my Master’s advisor and really pushed myself in that work, to get a chance to continue with him in the Ph.D. program. And it worked out great, because when I became a Ph.D. candidate, I was able to pick up a long-term research project right when it was shifting over from power storage – which was done by a previous researcher – and adding sensing, recording and wireless data transmission – which are the parts I wanted to work on.”
The Engineering Professional Maser’s Program (EPMP) in Materials Science proved to be an excellent preparation for Ms. Lai’s Ph.D. work. “Before my master’s work, I had no experience in device fabrication. In pursuing my master’s degree, I learned how to work in a cleanroom, how to fabricate 2D devices and how to use all of the sophisticated instruments that are required in advanced research.”
Jiawei’s project is funded under an industry-focused center called ATOMIC, and this has helped her in another way. Ms. Lai wants to be a researcher AND an educator, and presenting to the ATOMIC Industry Advisory Board was initially an intimidating thing. “I had to practice my presentation a lot. I know my research really well, but explaining it to people who are not in my technical field was new to me. I’m really glad we get industry exposure here at Rice. If you can’t communicate with different audiences, you’re just not going to get very far, whether you’re in industry, academia or government labs.”
Ms. Lai also likes it that Rice is small. “In the Professional Master’s program, we had tens of people in our courses. My friends who went to larger universities have hundreds of people in their classrooms. There’s just no way you’re going to get the access to faculty in those bigger programs that we get here.”
When asked what she likes about Houston, Jiawei echoed many other students from all over the world: “It’s the food! I’m from Fujian, which is in the southeast part of China, close to Taiwan. My parents were afraid I would get homesick for the food, but when I got here, I was really excited: not only could I get Fujian cooking, but also Taiwanese, Cantonese, Szechuan, Beijing – all sorts of Chinese cuisines. And not just restaurants – also great markets, which is important because I really like to cook.” Ms. Lai has a reputation among her colleagues as a top cook, and even leads expeditions to the Gulf Coast to catch crabs – something she learned how to do here in Texas.
Jiawei also mentioned Houston’s low cost of living, especially compared with west-coast locations. “Many professional master’s candidates consider living expenses to be a main factor in their decisions. In Houston we’re getting more living space and better locations for given amount of money, compared to a lot of our friends in other parts of the US.”
Meanwhile, Jiawei’s research is going extremely well. “We’re working on flexible sensors. Industry has told us they want to put flexible sensors on clothes. Our current system is flexible: battery, circuits and sensors – and it can communicate remotely with a cell phone or PC. We can already detect NO2 in parts-per-billion level! The platform is integrated, totally flexible, and now our biggest need is for a new testing rig.” Ms. Lai is excited about continuing her research here at Rice and discovering new opportunities along the way.