Lilly A Schaffer

March 17, 2022: Interviewed by Ananya Mondal, Anjaly S Menon, Atrayee Sarkar.

Ananya: Can you introduce yourself to our readers and the area of physics you work in?

I am Lilly Schaffer, 4th year graduate student in Physics at UH. I do materials research, working in solar energy conversion. I work in the Nanomaterials and Devices Lab and my PI is Dr. Varghese. I received my undergraduate degree in Physics from UH and I am from near-Houston.

Anjaly: Can you tell us about the current research project that you are working on?

My current project is putting together a measurement system that can be used to extract quantitative information about reactions and rates that take place in solar energy converting devices. By solar energy converting devices, I mean solar cells and photoelectrochemical cells (which are used for water splitting to make hydrogen fuel or can be used to covert CO2 into carbon-based fuels). Within these devices, several processes take place including excitation of electrons by sunlight, recombination of electrons, and electron transfer between layers or phases. We probe these processes to get an understanding of what’s happening inside our devices so that we can hopefully improve their efficiency of converting light to electricity or fuel.

Ananya: What has been the most challenging part of the projects that you are currently doing and how did you overcome those?

To put this measurement system together first requires an understanding of what the measurement is. It’s not a new technique, but rather something that is in the literature, with the theory already developed. Our group has decided to build one of these systems in our lab. There is no specific instruction manual for making any custom system. Thus, it has been a challenge to get all the right pieces together. We’ve had to build amplifier and filter circuits. We’ve had to write code which can do the measurement automatically and process the data. There has been intense calibration. We are aiming to measure very small signals, so precision is of utmost importance. These were the challenges; to overcome the challenges we have had to keep trying – we have discussions about what isn’t working, we try something to fix it, we try to test from all possible angles to be sure we fixed that problem, and we move on to the next one. We are hoping to have it completed soon. I believe we are starting to get reliable data now.

Anjaly: After graduating, are you planning to continue in academia or look for an industry job?

I am planning to go for industry jobs when I finish school, but I do not intend to leave academia completely.

Atrayee: As you are nearing the end of your fourth year have you started job searching? If so, how is the experience different than searching job/phd position after finishing undergraduate degree?

I am beginning to look at jobs as I get closer to finishing school. The difference in job searches now is that I’m much more specialized and now I have a lot more experience doing laboratory work. There are also fewer people with the same credentials when you finish a graduate degree. I’m hoping I can find a great fit for the skills I’ve been working on, and I will be very excited to start somewhere new eventually!

Ananya: If not for a physics PhD, what else would you have pursued?

If I did not study physics, I have no clue what I would have pursued. I was on the physics train from the start, for not much apparent reason besides an interest and a knack for math (which is probably not unrelated to some good math teachers). However, knowing what I know now, I think I would have enjoyed electrical engineering (EE). I say EE because I work with electronic systems now and I find the work fun and interesting, though it has taken and still takes considerable study and training on my part to be able to do it. If I were to choose something unrelated to physics, then maybe I would have tried my hand at law. Legal and historical studies are so tied to human nature, and that is a fascinating topic of debate.
All being said, I am grateful for the opportunity to study physics at the graduate level. Going this route, learning has been structured and formal, and I have been introduced to topics that I never could have imagined. I believe there is no substitute for learning physics. No matter what a person’s profession will be, knowing fundamentals about forces or energy conservation can give someone another lens with which to view the world.
That is why scientific outreach is so important because it’s a chance to demonstrate some of the fundamental principles of electricity, or angular momentum, or optics to an audience who doesn’t have expertise in these areas, all wrapped up in a neat experiment or presentation! As well, there are excellent videos on YouTube, both by accredited lecturers and gifted animators, and there are books and articles in local libraries and on the internet, so learning is more accessible than ever (…just beware of information overload).

Ananya: You have done your undergraduate studies here at UH Physics and now you are pursuing a PhD. I am guessing you know the place very well by now. So, what advice or tips do you have for undergraduate/graduate WiP at UH so that they can make the most of their time here?

I am no stranger to UH or Houston; I’ve grown up here. My advice for an undergraduate and graduate woman in physics is to of course make friends in physics and be a part of study groups. It helps so much when the coursework or the path gets hard to have a sense of community with other people in your academic/professional field. Advice specifically for being a student at UH is to explore the city! The physical area is huge, and Houston is so culturally and sub-culturally diverse. It can be hard to explore because the city’s size, but I recommend, if you can, to try experience the great foods, grocery stores, shows, bars, parks, everything.

Ananya: You were one of the first officers of the women in physics (WiP) group in the UH physics department when it was founded in 2020 and currently you are serving as the treasurer for the APS WiP group at UH. What motivated you to take the initiative and where does your vision lay for the future of this group?

I was excited that there was going to be an official Women in Physics group (WiPS). When there was an opening for treasurer, I was happy to run for the position because I wanted to participate and contribute to the discussion and planning of what we were going to do. I didn’t have an exact plan, but I knew we were going to have outreach events, scientific and career discussions, and social events, and I wanted to be a part of it.
My vision for the future of this group is that we continue to the drive in these areas. I think scientific outreach is a great thing for young students. Not just to recruit them to pursue physics or science, but simply to show all students cool experiments/demos and tell them interesting things about space that they might not have otherwise seen or heard somewhere else. I think that fostering a scientific community with an emphasis on women is also amazing. I hope that the group can be a point of strength for all its members.
Thanks for the interview questions.