Jake Gray first discovered his love of research in high school physics class when his teacher challenged his students to predict the path of a marble rolling down a ramp.

He fondly remembers the elation he felt when the marble hit its target in the simple experiment.

“It is so exciting to predict how the universe works,” he says.

A graduate student in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, Gray recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, one of just 2,000 students chosen nationwide from more than 13,000 applicants.

He is studying how a nickel catalyst within an electrical field can break down tightly bonded methane molecules. The research is important in industrial processes as a way to someday more easily convert methane waste into useful products.

Gray began the project as an undergraduate, receiving help from his mentor, Associate Professor Su Ha.

“Professor Ha strikes the right balance of direction and freedom,” Gray said. “He inspired me to explore and develop confidence as a researcher.”

Jake Gray and Su Ha.

Research can be difficult, often with more failed trials than successes.

“Admitting to the fact that you are wrong is one of the most difficult parts of research, but it’s not a bad thing,” he says. “There is a lot to learn from failure.”

When a big breakthrough happens, Gray says, the feeling of exhilaration makes the entire process worth it. New understanding creates more opportunities for discovery.

“Being able to find and predict future breakthroughs gives me the same excitement as the marble experiment did,” he says.

Ha enjoys mentoring Gray and encourages other students to get involved with research as undergraduates.

“Research is the best opportunity on campus to learn outside of a textbook,” Ha said, “For Jake, there has been so much growth. It has made him more engaged in chemical engineering concepts and ignited his passion for the subject.”