Assistant Professor of Physics
Physical Sciences Department
Rachel Meyen, B.S. in Physics, Dr. Medini Padmanabhan, Assistant Professor of Physical Sciences
and Kerri Houghton, B.S. in Professional Chemistry
Dr. Medini Padmanabhan, Assistant Professor of Physics in the Physical Sciences Department, is currently working on low-cost, large-area, carbon-based electronic devices. The material of choice is graphene, a single-atomic layer of carbon atoms. In her lab, her students attempt to fabricate large area graphene films by exfoliating bulk graphite. These thin films are then used as substrates for the fabrication of various optoelectronic devices such as photodetectors and solar cells. The work done in her lab is at the intersection of physics, chemistry, and material science.
Dr. Padmanabhan’s work is partially funded through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), by the National Science Foundation (NSF). “It started out as a collaboration between Brown University, University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) and RIC,” says Dr. Padmanabhan. The collaborative project’s aim is to investigate perovskites, a type of material with a specific crystal structure that can be engineered to fabricate high efficiency solar cells.
According to Dr. Padmanabhan, the research group at Brown University and UNL are pioneers in this field. Her role in this project is to come up with a very specific component of the solar cell called the transparent conductive electrode.
The four year grant also provides summer support for one RIC undergraduate per year to participate in a paid research internship at Brown. Rachel Meyen, a physics major, spent the summer of 2016 at Brown investigating perovskite cells with carbon back electrodes. She fabricated solar cells with up to 3% efficiency and discovered that carbon electrodes successfully mitigate instabilities in perovskites due to atmospheric exposure.
“My students are a huge motivating factor for me,” continues Dr. Padmanabhan. During the academic year she has one or two students working with her in Clarke Science. “I make sure that they get at least one semester of training, followed by a semester of independent work.”
Dr. Padmanabhan encourages students to read a variety of journal articles to grasp different perspectives and to gain knowledge in the field before they start working on their research. Since much of the work is experimental, students also get training in data acquisition and analysis. Dr. Padmanabhan believes that this kind of research experience gives students alternate ways of thinking and learning. “It will also help them in future careers, whether they decide to go to graduate school or not,” she adds.
Dr. Padmanabhan sums up two main goals for her work: a scientific goal, and a mentorship goal. Currently, graphene is one of the most researched materials in the world and she is excited to be a part of the field. The material is abundant, eco-friendly and versatile. She also strongly believes that getting involved in undergraduate research provides mentoring for students’ professional development. This experience elevates the students’ aptitude in inquiry and problem-solving: skills that will be valuable assets in any career path they choose to follow.
According to Dr. Padmanabhan, the greater RIC community provides a positive and supportive background for faculty and students. She also notes that as RIC’s new administration is supportive of experiential learning and creative thinking, she is optimistic about future directions for student research.
The collaboration with Brown University has opened up new avenues for broader impact. In the Fall of 2016, Professor Nitin Padture from Brown Engineering gave an invited talk at RIC, which was well-received by students from many departments. One of the students, who was inspired by the talk, will be joining Dr. Padmanabhan’s research lab in Fall 2017 to continue the work.
L-R: Dr. Medini Padmanabhan, Assistant Professor of Physical Sciences; Kerri Houghton, B.S. in Professional Chemistry; Rachel Meyen, B.S. in Physics. Houghton and Meyen graduated in spring 2017 with honors.