By Megan Andrew, MSE Communications Assistant
Materials Science and Engineering Professor Pu-Xian Gao said that he finds his career most rewarding when he sees the difference he has made in a student’s life. He recalled a particular time he was chairing a conference and a former undergraduate student approached him. According to Gao, the student gave him a warm and enthusiastic greeting, and insisted that it was Gao’s class that pushed him to pursue a higher education.
Gao has been a with the UConn MSE department for 15 years, joining the faculty in 2007 after earning his PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Despite being very comfortable in his role within the department now, Gao entered the job as a professor with what he calls an ‘open mind,’ because he was unsure about the future of his career. After growing to love his position at UConn, Gao advises his students to have the same open-minded mentality about their future as they navigate the wide variety of career paths available to them.
Although his passion for teaching was ignited in part by chance, Gao made the decision to come to UConn specifically much more deliberately. “At the quiet and beautiful corner of the northeast, UConn boasts as a comprehensive and diversity-driven school,” he said.
Aside from the location, Gao also enjoys the competitive athletic programs and sporting events at UConn.
“UConn Huskies are well known for ‘our amazing athletics’ with outstanding athletic teams and athletes that rack up championship titles and make us proud.”
However, above all else, Gao was impressed by the prestige of the academics.
“UConn has solid academic quality, as it ranks the top research public university in the northeast. It continues to show consistently strong performance on many metrics,” he said.
For the past decade and a half, Gao has aided in furthering MSE academics. A major part of this was through his research contributions. Gao said he is currently focusing on the design, engineering, and science of nanostructured materials ensembles. His work specifically addresses relevant and pressing issues in the world today, such as energy sustainability and climate change. Some examples of his work include low temperature adsorbers and catalysts for emission control, carbon capture and utilization, sustainable and renewable fuels, electrodes for water electrolysis, sensing and remediation devices for environmental monitoring and management, materials for advanced PPE and medical instruments, scalable nanomanufacturing, and in-situ characterizations of chemical/energy transformations.
Since much of his work involves other areas of study, he and his research group work alongside team members from various universities, national labs, and industry partners, such as the United Technologies Research Center, the Honda Research Institute, and Umicore.
Gao said that aside from himself, these relationships with industry partners also benefit his students. “I am very glad that many of our former and current undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral trainees, have benefited from these relationships in the forms of either an internship, assistantship, or as a project participant,” he said.
After building strong relationships in interdisciplinary fields and communities, Gao is able to fully pursue the research he is passionate about. Early on in his career at UConn, he felt that he must make a distinction between his independent research and his experience training as a graduate student. However, he quickly learned that the people around him in the community took a more holistic approach.
“I felt very fortunate early on, and always thankful, that people in the research community have been open-minded and receptive to allow us to establish and position with a unique and impactful research area…We take pride in being able to contribute to the causes of tackling some technological and scientific problems in a large scale, such as the global emission control and utilization issues I mentioned earlier. I am excited and look forward to the bright future of this challenging endeavor.”
Gao’s appreciation of the communal feeling he experiences as part of the MSE Department has extended into both his classroom and his labs. His ability to do this is largely thanks to his outside partnerships with both academia and industry sectors.
“Over the years, we have engaged a broad array of interdisciplinary research topics and subjects in my laboratory, which is equipped with various capabilities from materials synthesis, processing, characterization, to device testing and modeling, thanks to the strong support over the years from the university and other sources.”
Gao likes to see students take full advantage of these resources.
“Despite the focus needed on individual research, we have always encouraged students to fully utilize the available resources in lab and get trained, and be capable of doing multiple things, not just one thing. That said, ‘multi-tasking’ ability is a beneficial trait that is trained for our students.”
He has found that such “full-range” preparation, both in-class and hands-on, has equipped students for various careers, regardless of the specific industry.
“Therefore, if there is any suggestion to current students, I would say, be open-minded about approaches, directions, and positions, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ Of course, once settled in, self-belief, hard work and persistence matter for eventual success,” he said.
Published: March 20, 2023