If you ask Kevin Ng '20, he'll tell you that the most important quality a good researcher can have is grit, and inquisitivity. Ask Hong Wei Chen '20, and he'll say determination—plus enough stamina to plow through stacks and stacks of research papers.
Perhaps it's best not to settle for just one quality, though, because a demonstrated combination of all of the above has fared this pair of seniors quite well. Ng and Chen started working for Dr. Sophia N. Suarez of Brooklyn College's physics department midway through their junior year of high school. The team of two has since made a place for themselves as electrochemists amidst the bustle of physical and chemical engineering taking place in Suarez's laboratory.
"We're trying to create an air-tight electrochemical cell that will be used to house a sample of electrolytes, so we can run voltammetry tests and NMR on it," said Ng.
Hong Wei elaborates further on the purpose of such work, explaining "Now that we rely so heavily on electronic devices, building this cell allows us to study the characteristics of the batteries that run them — it's a low-cost device that measures charging and discharging properties of electrolytes (which power batteries) such as current measurement."
If that sounds complicated, it's because it is. "Our professor gave us two choices when it came time to pick our project: the easy route, or the hard route; we chose the hard route," Ng revealed. But the duo handles it well, attributing most of their understanding to disciplined independent research and previous years of AP classes.
"Whenever we get stuck, we try to find our own answers using the internet, reading textbooks in lab, and combing through research papers," Chen said. Ng added, "AP Physics C prepared me for this project by teaching me about mechanics, and how the amount of torque applied in our design affects pressure within our cell."
Nevertheless, no amount of preparation can save a researcher from the perils of, well, research. Ng and Chen shared that despite their incredible investment into the original model of their cell, unforeseen expenses forced them to start over with a completely new design. "We didn't expect a little rubber piece to cost over $200, making our original cell too expensive to build. So, we had to revise our design to not include that part, which pushed us to tap into our creative skills," said Ng.
Yet, creativity is far from the only thing the gentlemen exercised in order to meet their success. "We learned how to think like engineers, which involves a lot of trial and error," Ng said. Chen adds, "We also learned how to properly time-manage, and some useful data collection skills."
For those considering research, Ng offers "If you're interested in electrochemical engineering, this is a good lab for you. However, you will be mostly independent, making it a challenging environment". Chen agrees, claiming "There really isn't anyone watching over your shoulder, so you can manage your time how you want — although it's crucial to be smart about it."
Ng and Chen finished their junior year strong with a presentation at Brooklyn College Science Day in May, following their defeat of the multiple obstacles riddling their research. The team remains enthusiastic as they work through the homestretch before NYCSEF in March of 2020.
Alyssa Kattan (Class of 2020)