PhD Candidate in Chemistry
Steven Swick is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on designing and understanding new materials that can be used to capture and convert sunlight into electricity. Steven is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF-GRFP) and co-teaches a class in the Northwestern Prison Education Program.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research focuses on designing and understanding new materials for that can be used to capture and convert sunlight into electricity.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I deeply admire the members of the Northwestern Prison Education Program and the members of Science in Society at Northwestern who use their positions of privilege as graduate students, professors, and professionals at Northwestern University for the empowerment of others. It has been the commitment and empathy of people in these centers that has inspired me to try to be a more socially responsible scientist and a better citizen of the world.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
One of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of working as a scientist is trying to understand how all the data that has been gathered paints a coherent and self-consistent picture of the system under study.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
The biggest potential impact of my work and all work on solar energy is the possibility of replacing our current fossil fuel based energy system. Through solar energy technologies such as photovoltaic cells, power production can be more environmentally friendly and more decentralized allowing people to become more self-sufficient. However, in order for this to occur there either needs to be the political will (which seems to be lacking) or solar energy needs to become competitive with the petroleum industry. Given the countless dollars and decades spent on refining the technologies used in the petroleum industry, we have some of catching up to do!
What inspires you?
Broadly speaking, the intricacy and beauty of the natural world has always been a source of inspiration to me and is what drew me to the sciences and chemistry. The universe is incredibly vast and there are so many layers of organization in it, from atoms and molecules, to cells and organisms, all the way up to planets and galaxies - it is truly amazing! As humans, we are in a fortunate position to be able to be able observe and study the universe on all of these levels. Through science, we can refine our understanding of what the natural world is, which not only allows us change the world with new technologies, but also provides a framework to ponder the most important questions in life - what are we, where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going.
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
As a young person, I struggled with reading and writing, but felt at home with the sciences and math. Although I did not have a clear idea of what I ultimately wanted to be, I kept following my interest in the sciences which eventually landed me in graduate school.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
I would say to follow your brain and follow your heart. Curiosity and interest are your greatest assets as a scientist - they help you to think more deeply about your research and may lead you down an unexpected path. Also, I believe it is important to work on things you care about, as this can help you persevere through challenging times.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
The chemistry course that I am co-teaching and the volunteer work I have participated in at Stateville Correctional Center has been one the most rewarding experience I have had. The students at Stateville show a level of commitment, classroom engagement, and curiosity that is greater than anywhere else I have been a student or have taught. They cherish the opportunity to learn (even chemistry!) and I feel privileged to work with them.
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