Organic Thermoelectrics in the Chabinyc Lab

This past summer I interned in the Chabinyc Lab at the UCSB Materials Department, studying the thermoelectric properties of conducting organic polymers.  In simple terms, we are studying plastic materials that can convert between heat and electricity.  I am a fourth year physics major at UCSB, but when I first began researching in professor Chabinyc’s lab I felt very unprepared.  My undergrad academic career left me with many holes in my knowledge of practical scientific knowledge.  I can confidently traverse Schrodingers equation and the principles of special relativity, but when my lab mentors asked me to list elements on the periodic table I drew blanks.  O-Chem was even more of a mystery.  It took me a long time and a lot of independent research to start becoming familiar with unfamiliar branches of science and lab practices.  However, by the end of the summer I felt much more comfortable making my way around the lab.

 When I had the opportunity to continue my research this quarter I was expecting smooth sailing.  I had already made it past the initial learning curve, so I figured things would come more as second nature.  Not true! I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Although I had become comfortable working with some p-type semiconducting polymers this summer, I was not prepared to work with n-type semiconducting polymers which are much more unstable.  I actually had to “unlearn” a lot of the procedures I had learned this summer because the new materials I’m working with are very delicate and require absolute cleanliness.  Even the smallest amount of contamination or exposure to air can ruin your samples.  Any data you get from these bad samples (if you can manage to get any) is basically useless, so it’s very important that you account for all possible sources of contamination before you began making samples.  On top of that, many properties of these polymers are time dependent, so for instance, step 2 needs to be carried out exactly 6 hours after step 1.  This can be pretty tricky to balance with a college schedule, where my classes and work hours are kind of all over the place.  Needless to say, I realized I had to do some more research and advanced planning before I could get going.  One of my mentors warned me the I would probably screw up the first couple of times, and she was right! Oh well, on to the next one.

The moral of this is there is always more to learn!  And the more I do learn, the more I realize how little I know.  In the end, I’m glad it works out like this.  Life would be boring otherwise.  Each new mystery is a new opportunity for growth, and I’m thankful to have so many supporting people guiding me through this journey.  At least now I will know better than to overestimate myself.  It can be a really beneficial and humbling experience to keep that initial feeling of ignorance I had at the start of the summer.

Reflecting on My Summer Internship

Only two weeks left as my summer research experience comes to a close.  It has been a great experience and It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to the lab and all the great people I’ve met.  I can’t say I’ve had much luck with my research project, but as the saying goes it’s about the journey not the destination.  My only regret is that I waited til before my senior year to do summer research.  I wish I could come back next year!


For anyone who is considering summer research I say the earlier the better.  I’ve really enjoyed my experience and learned so much, but I wish I hadn’t waited til the summer before my senior year.  The things you will learn doing a research internship will be invaluable for your college experience.  For one thing, it will help your focus, and let you know early on whether or not grad school or research is something you want to pursue.  Having that sense of direction early on is going to make your college experience so much smoother.  On top of that, the 9 to 5 is a nice break from school.  I pulled zero all-nighters this summer, and always had extra time after work and on the weekends (you’re not actually a grad student, so you won’t have to worry about all the papers, presentations, and conferences).  The projects and presentations we did have were a great opportunity to practice public speaking and presentation skills in a stress free environment.  So trust me, if you’re on the fence or just not sure what you want to do, try out undergrad research.  Even if it doesn’t go great (although it seems like it almost always does) better to find out now than in grad school.


Just to close I want to thank Anne Glaudell for being an amazing mentor.  She has taught me so much this summer, and has really made me feel comfortable in lab.  Coming in to this experience I was nervous and worried I wouldn’t be good enough, but now this lab feels like home (as much as a job can feel like home…you know what i mean).  I also want to thank all of the program advisers and guest speakers who gave us professional, academic, and personal advice.  I feel so much more prepared to face graduation than I did just a few months ago, and I am excited for what the future holds.

Studying Organic Thermoelectrics Through The CEEM Program

This summer I was given the opportunity to be part of the CEEM summer internship program.  I have zero experience working in a research lab, so going into the program I had no idea what to expect.  So far my experience has been very challenging but even more rewarding.  Even though at first i was very nervous, everyone in the lab has really helped me feel at home and I am looking forward to the coming weeks.

I am working in the Chabinyc lab studying organic thermoelectric materials.  A thermoelectric is a material that can convert thermal energy (heat) into electrical energy or vice versa.  These can be used to capture useless waste heat, such as in factories or even car exhaust, and turn it into useful electricity (via the Seebeck effect).  They can also be used for very precise heating or cooling (via the Peltier effect).  These thermoelectric effects are consequences of the semiconducting nature of thermoelectric materials.  Typically semiconductor devices are made from inorganic crystals with a rigid structure, so these are what make up the majority of current thermoelectrics.  More recently however, people have begun looking into organic polymer (fancy word for plastic) semiconductors, which is what our lab is interested in.  So far these are not nearly as efficient as existing thermoelectrics, but they have the added bonuses of being flexibe, easy to process, and stable at room temperature.

Anne Glaudell, my graduate student mentor, is laying down the groundwork for this research by characterizing the thermoelectric properties of different organic semiconductors.  Unlike inorganic thermoelectrics, not much is known about how organic polymer thermoelectrics actually work.  Before theory can be developed much more experimental data is needed, and until then we will have almost no idea which polymers will be the highest performing (there are a lot to choose from).  My job this summer is to look at PEDOT:PSS, an organic conducting ink that is the most promising thermoelectric so far, and compare it with another conducting ink polymer, poly(thiophene-3-[2[(2-methoxyethoxy)ethoxy]-2,5-diyl) (or Plexcore for short).  I will be measuring the conductivity and the Seebeck coeffiecient ( a measure of how well the material converts between electrical and thermal energy) for these polymers.

Like I said before, I had no idea what to expect going into this.  What I’ve learned is that labwork is an exercise in patience and nothing ever works the first time.  After more than 3 weeks of conducting measurements and preparing samples, I still haven’t gotten reliable data for any of my samples.  In the lab anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and it seems like for every problem you solve three more appear.  I’ve actually spent most of my time troubleshooting with Anne, trying to find a way to take a good Seebeck measurement for my samples.

Ironically, I can honestly say this has been one of my favorite parts of the experience.  All the little mishaps along the way have given me a chance to try and really understand how everything in the lab works.  From the measurement equipment, to the processing, to the software.  There are problems everywhere you look in lab, and I love problem solving.  The real work in lab is  finding clever solutions to problems when there are no textbook answers.  This whole experience has given me a chance to see first hand how science actually happens and I have a new found appreciation for all the work that goes into it.  In just a few short weeks I’ve met so many great minds and teachers that have really helped me develop and prepare myself for the future.  I’m excited to see how things go the rest of the summer.