How long have you been teaching at Waterloo?
That’s a really long story. Generally, I’ve been here for 9 years. But for the first three years I was not doing class teaching. At the time we had nanotechnology engineering. They just started the programming and they needed everything done. I was brought in to help them build all the labs for first year undergrad,get all the labs ready and open the first generation of the program. That’s for the first three years. Later on, I moved to more of a classroom teaching environment.
What courses do you teach?
I teach Heat & Mass Transfer, a core course of chemical engineering. I also teach a general materials science engineering course. For nanotechnology engineering, I teach nano structures and materials, which is directly related to my research. I’m working on graphene and carbon nano-tubes. You might have seen this somewhere. The tiny nano-materials are my building blocks for making a super capacitor.
What is your favourite course to teach?
Heat & Mass Transfer is more fundamental, there’s not much new material. I added something new recently because of nano-materials. For the materials course, it directly connects to my research.
How’d you end up as a professor?
Sometimes with life, you cannot imagine what you’ll do. I ended up going directly to industry after my dissertation, to work for General Electric. I thought I will work in R&D and that will be my goal. I was alone with my daughter in Philadelphia, but my husband was in Waterloo. Initially we thought he’d stay in Waterloo for two years and then he’d move back. But nanotechnology engineering was a very exciting program and my husband said why don’t you try and come to Canada? I applied, got the position and the family was reunited. But when I initially planned my career, I never imagined I would come to Canada. I thought about the States and maybe go back to China, but never Canada.
Favourite part of being a professor?
I have two favourite parts. One is classroom teaching. You feel as if you are motivating students. You give knowledge and the student’s interest increase towards a particular area. I’ve seen several examples of this in both materials classes and that made me really happy.
Another part is regarding research. I have a good idea and then give it to my students. They will do laboratory work and come up with a good product. Our research directly connects with industry. Then companies are really happy and say we should apply for a patent together. That makes everybody happy. The company contributes funding, the government contributes funding and we make this product.
I’m actually from China so initially my English wasn’t very good. So the first class or second class, I didn’t get a good evaluation from the students. I felt frustrated. I tried my best and prepared very well, why is everyone not happy? I found that my expectations and the students expectations were different. I have to imagine if I were a student, what would I expect.
In my research, sometimes I have very good ideas. For example, a few years ago, I had a very good idea and gave it a student. At the time, it was porous graphene. I said if we do this quickly it can lead to a Science paper. The student was lacking practice and was not the greatest hands-on. After a half a year, the student was still getting poor results. In my area of nanotechnology we aren’t working alone. We’re competing with everyone in the world. In the meantime, another group published the paper in Science exactly as I imagined it. We might have this idea earlier than them, but we didn’t work hard.
My teaching philosophy is well organized. My teaching notes are well organized and relatable. I usually give the students the notes ahead of time before the class, so they can get a good overview. But I leave lots of questions blank and in class I answer the questions. Sometimes some key results or some key summaries I leave blank. In the class I’ll show the summary and the answer to the question.
The second is motivation. When I teach the heat & mass transfer class, it’s a fundamental class. More than 80% of the class is on mass. How can you motivate students to show interest? That’s very challenging for me. So every class, I started from a YouTube video or pictures, which illustrates the concept. Start with the real-world example and then move to the key concept and finally any detailed derivations.
Finally, as I mentioned before, I have to ensure my needs and the students’ needs match up.
If you weren’t a professor what would you be doing?
I don’t know whether I would’ve stayed in the States had I not been a professor. I probably would’ve stayed in the industry. It all depends on my personal goals and the family requirements. Why am I doing graphene? I’m not just doing the same graphene other people are doing. I’m making graphene to have a higher surface area in order to make a supercapacitor.
What’s the difference between a regular capacitor and a supercapacitor?
Normally, a capacitor is in micro Farads. That’s a very small capacitance. The reason is a regular capacitor is just two metal plates and then you have ceramic or polymer as a separation membrane. So the surface area is just these two plates, this limits the capacitance. Supercapacitors uses just graphene powder. However, if you look inside with a microscope, there are billions of small pores, which can each store charge. So right now you can buy a supercapacitor with 100 mF or even bigger. It all comes from the super high surface area.
Interviews are around the corner. Any tips for engineering students?
I usually hire every term 1-2 co-op students. Some projects might need constant testing and then I hire a co-op. Every year I hire three or four co-op students. When I interview a student, I look at their background. For example if I’m interviewing an electrical engineering student I ask them to show me the basic capacitor calculation. If I’m interviewing a nanotechnology or chemical engineering student, I’ll give them a quiz. The questions are all true and false. I look at the marks as well.
3 tips for undergrad?
Show up to class. Lots of times, I have students ask me questions and it’s because they missed class or didn’t pay attention.
Second is teamwork. Engineering classes always have lots of homework. My homework is usually divided into easy, medium and hard. Easy and medium questions you can do by yourself after reviewing the textbook or class notes. The tough ones are for your thinking. Don’t just think alone, you can have a group study session.
Favourite memory of undergrad?
My undergraduate degree was done in China. We had a twenty years reunion last year. In China at that time the requirements to get into university were really high, only 1 to 2% were admitted. As a result, the completion rate was really high. We had a few times were went to industry. It’s like a co-op system, but ours was different. Our co-op is the whole class going into one particular industry. In our case it was the petroleum industry. You see the distillation columns, filtration techniques and chemical plants. I feel I gained a lot of practical experience.
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