Research leads to Columbia Ph.D. program for Wang

Not to say he’s a superhero or anything, but Jihang Wang did spend the fall working on a project that might save the world.

Jihang Wang will start his Ph.D. in chemistry at Columbia University this fall.
Jihang Wang will start his Ph.D. in chemistry at Columbia University this fall.

Wang, who graduated from Cornell College in May with degrees in chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology, worked this fall at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He was on a team examining ways that industry can prevent carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from escaping into the atmosphere.

“Carbon dioxide is a common byproduct of many industrial processes, and it’s a major contributor to climate change, Wang said. “If we can capture CO2 and prevent it from going into the atmosphere, that would be really important.”

The most common processes to capture it now consume massive amounts of energy, and the materials used to capture  carbon dioxide are hard to recycle, he said. The team at Oak Ridge examined a novel chemical solution that captures the gas at room temperature and requires less energy to recycle. There are a lot of scientists working to solve the problem of carbon dioxide capture, he said, and the project he worked on could be more efficient and, in the end, less costly, making it more widely available to industry.

“This is a problem that needs to be solved in the next 10 years or so,” he said. “It needs a lot of attention.”

Wang, who is originally from China, got to take part in the experience at Oak Ridge partially because of the relationship that his advisor, chemistry professor Craig Teague, has with the lab. Teague has been a visiting faculty member at the laboratory and spent the summer of 2014 doing research there with students. One of the reasons Wang chose to major in chemistry was the opportunities the department offers for research.

“It’s not easy for a small college to provide chances like that,” he said. “Schools like Columbia really care about the research experience you have. Most of the time research projects don’t work, so they want to know you’ve been able to deal with that. The three research projects I took part in were part of the reason I was admitted to Columbia.”

The other Ph.D. programs that admitted Wang include University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Scripps Research Institute.

Wang said he got a strong base from his first research project, a summer spent on campus working with chemistry professor Charley Liberko. He worked on the synthesis and reactions of a potentially photoreactive compound.

“It was a really good foundation for what I did later on,” he said.

Wang did a biochemistry research project at the University of Iowa arranged by biology Professor Barbara Christie-Pope. One of the reasons he participated and added a major in biochemistry and molecular biology was because having a basis in biology and biochemistry makes chemistry students more attractive to graduate schools and can make research more successful as well.

The variety of high-level research projects in which students can participate  is one of the reasons the chemistry program at Cornell is so strong, Wang said, sending students to top-tier graduate programs like Northwestern University and MIT. His variety of experiences made him more attractive to Columbia. Columbia admits only a small number of chemistry Ph.D. students each year, and after their first year, students are able to choose what lab and projects they’ll work on.

“It might change,” Wang said, “but I feel like material chemistry, which I worked on at Oak Ridge, is really a strength of mine.”