Tara Braden on Undergraduate Research at Mines

By Erika Stromerson    /     2019

Material science is kind of where I found my love.

– Tara Braden, Engineering Physics, Class of 2021

Materials science is perhaps one of the broadest fields of research worked on today. People interact with materials constantly, and it’s a fast-paced and innovative field, where researchers are working applications for everything from astrophysics to geoengineering. But finding efficient ways of producing and conducting reliable, renewable electricity through materials— a branch of the field called thermoelectrics— is one of the most useful applications of materials science Mines is currently researching.

Tara Braden, a junior in Engineering Physics at Mines, is on the forefront of thermoelectric materials innovation.

She currently works as a research assistant in the thermoelectrics lab in the physics department, partnered with the photovoltaics lab at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). She’s much more than an assistant, however: her tasks include creating new materials through self-designed experiments, carrying out procedures for the lab leaders, and even managing the lab herself at times.

“Research has become kind of my passion,” says Braden. “I don’t feel like I’m working there, even though I get paid for my research. Sometimes things are frustrating and science doesn’t always do what you want it to do, and cleaning things up kinda sucks. I just found a love and place where I fit in. They feel like home, when I’m in labs.”

I don’t feel like I’m working [when I’m in the lab].

She found a home she could really thrive in in the thermoelectrics lab, where she’s helped run research experience programs for transfer students, and is one of the most reliable research staff the lab has seen.

“I’m proud of the fact that the grad students or my advisor will tell people, ‘this student is as good or better than any grad student that you’ve had materials from,’” she says. “It’s really rewarding.”

But while she’s found her calling in materials research, her path to her research was not so clear-cut. She rotated through several majors before settling on Engineering Physics after transferring from Red Rocks Community College in 2017. She began Mines as a math major, but found herself wavering between math, chemical engineering, and physics before finally settling on the latter.

Her reason: she loves the research in the physics department.

“Physics gives me a really good background on understanding the interactions going on in materials, and I like working with my hands,” she says. “I’m definitely an experimentalist, if I know anything.”

Her first experience of Mines was through the Bridge Opportunities for Transfer Students (BOTS) program, where she met her current research advisor, Eric Toberer as she learned about the thermoelectric laboratory on campus. From there, she’s become a fixture of the thermoelectrics laboratory, and her research is starting to turn heads.

Last year, Braden attended a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in Utah, where she presented a poster on photovoltaics. One of her favorite moments was when Kate Kirby, the CEO of the American Physical Society, stopped by her poster to talk about her work, a standout in a conference devoted largely to astrophysics materials applications. Braden was overjoyed. “It’s really cool to see people like that recognize your work.”

It’s fun to be in a community where people are like-minded.

This past September, she was the only undergraduate student to attend the International Conference on Ternary and Multinary Compounds in Boulder, CO. She entered a poster presentation contest, and her presentation beat out other researchers, postdocs, and faculty to win the contest.

Braden smiles. “That’s my favorite thing, to just go and see what everyone is doing. [Conferences] give you a chance to see what different people are working on, and learn more about different aspects of materials or physics.” She finds that conferences show that she’s doing something worthwhile, that her research has a purpose, and it’s incredibly rewarding for her. “It’s fun to be in a community where people are really like-minded.”

Her accomplishments will also include coauthorship on several academic papers by the end of this year, two of which have already been published. One discusses the discovery of a new ternary material, while another discussed methods of testing the efficiency and productivity of different materials through numerous trials.

Braden has plans to continue researching as long as she can, eventually earning a Ph.D and studying materials full-time. She’s excited to see where she can go with materials research.

“Materials science is kind of where I found my love,” she says, “so that’s what I plan on  pursuing as a Ph.D. The thing about materials science is that it’s extremely broad. If I wanted to go into astrophysics materials I could. That’s really what I love about materials, I get to   combine physics with my love of chemistry. I can do something useful with it, but I’m not   limited to one field.”

She’s thankful for the skills she learned along the way, especially the value of open communication with her research advisors and graduate students. She attributes a lot of her love for research to the supportive and collaborative environment the photovoltaics lab encourages.

But she also knows research takes a lot of patience. “Science is just kinda how it is, it just wants to do what it wants to do.”

She’s excited for what her future holds with materials research, and she’s happy that she found her love for research at Mines.

Tara chuckles, thinking about her path to research. “I didn’t think I’d still be here, but I love every single day of it.”