It is late October 2017, and we were lucky enough to interview Dr. Thomas A. Adams, asking him a few choice questions about his research regarding the future of chemical engineering, energy conversion, and graduate studies.
Question 1 – What are the next steps for you and your research? In addition, what do you think about how your research will impact the world?
Answer – We’re going in a lot of new directions at once with different projects. One of the ones that I hope to benefit us here in Hamilton is that we’re working with the ArcelorMittal Dofasco steel refinery here with trying to reduce their CO2 emissions significantly. This factory is the single biggest emitter of CO2 in Ontario and we’re looking at various options regarding converting their waste gases into liquid fuels, which could help significantly. We’re working on some interesting ideas involving nuclear-to-liquids for the Province as well, such that we can use our existing nuclear expertise and access to the technology in a way where plants are constructed in remote areas such that they don’t produce power, they produce fuels using biomass as the primary carbon source. This requires some interesting new equipment and system designs. We’re also working on new distillation technologies, such as semicontinuous distillation-on-a-truck, which is meant to be used in the shale oil/gas industry to help reduce emissions from flare gas by converting it to liquid fuels to be used at the wellhead. Other projects are looking at using solid oxide fuel cells to produce electricity and heat at scales ranging from individual buildings to municipal power.
In terms of world impact, we’ll see. The main objective is to identify and create as many new technology options that satisfy the triple bottom line of sustainability, meaning that they are economically sustainable (has a business case), environmentally sustainable (does less damage to the environment than the status quo), and socially sustainable (has public and government acceptance and support). Only new ideas that meet all three have a chance to actually make a difference. We’ll see which ones catch on.
I gave a 15-minute high level (non-technical) talk introducing these ideas at the 67the Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference just yesterday. It should be on the CIC’s Live Learning Centre at some point in the near future.
Question 2 – What are your criteria when selecting someone as your Masters or Ph.D. student? What is the best method to contact you to discuss an opportunity for starting a graduate education under your supervision?
Answer – It’s quite competitive, actually. In reality, I get about 100-150 formal paid applications requesting to be in my group annually. I get close to 1000 email solicitations each year, which typically get a form-letter response, which sounds harsh but it’s all I can do given the sheer volume. I really only can consider formal applications as a result. I typically hire 1-2 people at most, so the percentages are not great for anyone, and it’s really tough because we get lots of great applicants that have to be turned away for funding reasons.
So the best way to get the attention of a professor is usually just a good formal application. You can try to email too, that usually doesn’t hurt, but almost no one responds because of the volume so don’t take it personally if they do not reply.
As far as criteria, it really depends. If I have funding for a specific project then I look for skills and interests that match the project. Having publications is a huge plus, as is the percentage chance that the candidate might get a scholarship. Most often however, I am most interested in evidence of independence, critical thinking, communication, intelligence, and scientific skills. They have to have drive. Having an application with a proposal for an original research idea is a huge plus. If you can show me that you have read the literature, you understand gaps in the literature or have enough detailed knowledge to suggest new ideas, and that you can suggest a research plan that would actually get that done, that means you have what it takes, even if the research idea is not really that good or we never do it. Often, a technical background in a specific subject area is less important than these traits because excellent people can usually learn new things and adapt pretty quickly. It’s also really important that the candidate have compatible personalities. This does not mean we should be the same personality, or the same culture. Far from it. It means that you need to be someone that I really want to work with, and I need to be someone that you really want to work with. Since my students come from basically all continents of the world (I haven’t had Australia yet though) and every different culture and religion and social status and all that, I have learned to work well with people completely unlike myself. But at the end of the day, we have to work well together or it will be miserable for both of us. That is why I require all people who receive an offer to interview my existing group members to find out what kind of a person I am before accepting… to make sure that it will work.
Question 3 – What suggestions do you have for undergraduate students who are planning to attend graduate education?
Answer – Keep up the passion and keep an open mind about where you can go and what you are interested in. If you think you are interested in something, chances are there is more out there you never had heard of that you like even better. Grades really do help maximize your chances of graduate school. It’s hard to say no to someone with amazing grades. That leads to scholarships and is a good predictor of future success, but the scholarships part is critical because that means the professor doesn’t incur as much financial burden or risk. Scholarships mean a position could be created for you that wouldn’t have existed otherwise because of funding. Getting involved in undergraduate research helps too so you get a sense of what you will be expected to do, and can increase your chance of getting scholarships. For me though, a good co-op or internship is just as good because that industrial experience is also really valuable. So do one of those.