Undergrad leadership through initiative

Sit down and talk with Mines undergraduate student Paul Levi Miller and you will notice right away he is very enthusiastic about science.

“I like science a lot, but I also like science that can help people,” said Miller, a senior engineering physics major. “Renewable energy will solve a lot of our problems at a very fundamental level.”

As an undergrad, Miller is working directly on game changing research. Together with Physics Professor Reuben Collins, he studies nano crystalline silicon, a material of particular interest to scientists for its potential to improve solar cell efficiency by preventing energy from being wasted to heat “just by taking advantage of energy that is already interacting with these materials.”

Miller’s undergraduate research began when he was a sophomore and participated in a National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program at Mines’ Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (REMRSEC). It was a 10-week summer session allowing him to direct his own research project for the first time.

“I started from not really knowing how research worked to actually becoming a researcher who is pretty self-sufficient, who could come up with questions and figure out ways to answer them. And that’s really what research is all about,” he said.

The experience was a springboard to other opportunities, approaching professors to participate in their research projects and even working on a paper currently under review to be published in Nature.

Miller’s experience underscores an aspect of the institutional culture of Mines where professors and research projects are accessible and an undergraduate’s experience can be determined simply by initiative and desire to get involved in on-going scientific study.

Miller said his undergraduate research experience put him in a different league when applying to graduate schools — he was accepted to all four of the schools to which he applied. He plans to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This article appears in the 2012-13 issue of Energy and the Earth magazine.