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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Featured Stories

In His Element

Jake Gray holds up catalyst in the lab.

By Mary Catherine Frantz, intern, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

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 simple experiment and the joy and elation when the marble hit its calculated target.

“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 is now studying how and why a nickel catalyst in the presence of an electrical field is able to break down tightly bonded methane molecules. The research is important in industrial processes as a potential way to someday more easily convert methane waste into useful products.

“There are unsolved mysteries that I cannot let myself step away from,” Gray says.

Gray began the project as an undergraduate student, which required him to undertake a significant amount of learning.  He was fortunate to receive 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, in that there are often more failed trials than successes. But, Gray says, the failures can often be critically important.

“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 is grateful to mentor Gray as he develops confidence as a researcher and encourages students to get involved with research in their undergraduate career.

“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.”

Gray looks forward to continuing his research with help from a three-year fellowship from the National Science Foundation. He was among just 2,000 students chosen from more than 13,000 applicants to receive the award.

“Chemical engineering is unique in that you can combine elements and transform them into completely new things,” he says. “Research allows me to experience reactions on a hands-on level.”

In the past decade, the WSU Voiland School has become one of the nation’s top chemical engineering programs in catalysis, with high-impact research in transformational energy technologies. Learn more about research in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.