Expert On The Cutting Edge of Solar Power Development Arrives at Boston College

by Maura Kelly

This semester, Boston College welcomed to campus Dr. Jier Huang, the newest Core faculty member at the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society. A chemist and material scientist, Huang develops physical products that convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into fuels that are not only usable, but efficient, clean, and sustainable. “I do interdisciplinary research focused on addressing the energy problems the world is facing,” says Huang, who holds a joint appointment in Schiller and in BC’s Department of Chemistry. The current reliance on fossil fuels is problematic in interlocking ways, as she points out: “Fossil fuel deposits are not usually located where people live and use them, which generates geopolitical and economic issues,” in addition to ecological disasters. She adds, “My work aligns with the global goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions.”

Both locally and beyond Chestnut Hill Huang will make a difference, says Laura J. Steinberg, the Schiller Institute’s Seidner Family Executive Director. “As we struggle to live in a sustainable way, we will require the kind of scientific breakthroughs, advanced materials discoveries, and new energy technologies that Jier is on the forefront of developing,” says Steinberg. “Ultimately, applications of Jier’s work will form the basis for patents and product development, and as the Schiller Institute continues to grow, there will be opportunities to translate her fundamental discoveries into real-world products.”

For two decades now, Huang has been studying cutting-edge materials that will help provide energy from the sun. Immediately prior to her move to the East Coast, she was the Wehr Distinguished Professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Earlier in her career, she pursued her interests in biomimetic photosynthetic and photovoltaic materials while getting her Ph.D. at Emory University; that led her to a postdoctoral appointment with the United States Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago. 

Along with Yi Ming and Hanqin Tian, the two other Schiller Core faculty members, who started in the fall, Huang was hired after a thorough search process undertaken by a unique committee, made up of thirteen faculty members representing twelve departments at BC; the large interdisciplinary group reflects the Schiller Institute’s commitment to collaboration. The institute—founded through a generous $25 million gift from trustee Phil Schiller, ‘82, and his wife, Kim Gassett-Schiller—was created to address critical societal issues related to energy, health, and the environment by encouraging an approach that brings together specialists from all areas of academia, and the business sphere too.

A number of unique attributes made Huang stand out among the pool of candidates—like ”her passion to explore new realms of discovery, her evident enthusiasm for engaging students in the mysteries of science, and her desire to go beyond her current knowledge in a way that will foster joint research with many others on campus,” as Steinberg says. In a reference to Huang’s facility with ultrafast spectroscopy- and synchrotron-based X-ray techniques, Steinberg points out, “She also brings instrumentation knowledge that many others on campus will be able to learn from—an incredible panoply of laser instrumentation techniques. She is really upping our game in advanced instrumentation and methods in laser spectroscopy.”

The Chemistry Department is delighted to have her onboard. Her expertise “generates deep insights into the chemical and physical processes that govern energy transfer, which is key to the process of energy conversion,” says Professor Dunwei Wang, who, as Margaret A. and Thomas A. '53 Vanderslice Chair in Chemistry, heads the department. He and Huang have complementary areas of expertise, so they plan to work together “to develop better solar-to-chemical conversion technologies and to advance energy storage technologies,” as he puts it. What’s more, he adds, “Her presence in the department will also serve as a great role model for our female students.” Indeed, she is poised to inspire a whole new generation of scientists, female and male alike. Part of the institute’s mission is to prepare the next wave of climate experts to help solve society’s most significant dilemma, and Huang will be an important part of that effort: As she did at Marquette, she will mentor graduate students in her lab. 

Another colleague who is excited to work side-by-side with Huang is her fellow new arrival, Ming, who is jointly appointed in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Jier has a long list of accomplishments at the frontier of material science and renewable energy,” says Ming. “Her expertise will be central to forging interdisciplinary collaborations.” He foresees himself working with her in a number of ways. Her technical capabilities will help him study the optical properties of aerosol particles, especially those composed of organic compounds, and to research new materials for solar panels. But she will also help him consider the climate implications of novel renewable energy technologies. Beyond that, on a personal level, Ming is glad to welcome Huang. “It is always fun to talk to Jier, whether it is about the latest laser technology or the local real estate market (we are both house-hunting),” he writes. “She is humble, caring and generous. I am so grateful for having her as a colleague.”

Huang is eager to make the most of the new opportunities that Schiller and BC will afford her. “In my career previously, I have focused on science,” she says. “Being at the Schiller Institute gives me the chance to integrate my science work with society.” She points out that in addition to working with people who do similar work at Schiller, she’ll have plenty of chances to meet others outside of her field. And being in the Greater Boston area only multiplies the possibilities, since, as she notes, “It’s an area with six universities and so many entrepreneurs. Boston also hosts national and international conferences.” 

In fact, in her brief time in the city thus far, Hunag has already had one novel experience, thanks to Schiller: In January, she and Steinberg, along with Schiller Institute Director of Finance and Operations Greg Adelsberger, visited Somerville-based Greentown Labs, a tech startup incubator focused on “solving the climate crisis through entrepreneurship and collaboration,” as they explain on their site. “I had never seen a lab like that,” she said. “There are many  start-up entrepreneurs there and they rent space to develop clean energy technologies.” It’s surely merely the first of many doors that will open to Huang through her work at Schiller.