April 28, 2021
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Graduate Student Bijal Patel, advised by Professor Ying Diao at the University of Illinois, has been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship through the National Research Council Research Associateship Program (RAP) to explore how polymers assemble into complicated nanostructures at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“This fellowship is prestigious and highly competitive,” Diao said. “I am delighted to see Bijal Patel apply his background in polymer self-assembly established here at Illinois to advance polymer additive manufacturing and develop state-of-the-art metrology critical to photonics, wearable electronics, transparent solar cells and beyond.”
Administered through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, RAP promotes excellence in scientific and technological research conducted by the U.S. government by supporting fellows to pursue research opportunities—alongside an advisor—at federal laboratories and affiliated institutions.
Patel will be advised by Dean DeLongchamp, who leads NIST’s Polymers Processing Group that develops measurement methods, data, standards, and science for the processing and manufacturing of materials into functional forms such as thin films, nanostructures, and shaped bulk solids.
“This award helps us develop skilled scientists and engineers into cutting-edge materials measurement experts,” DeLongchamp said. “It also connects the latest university research results and techniques with NIST scientific programs, increasing the impact of our new measurements by creating the potential for Bijal Patel to apply them to the exciting new materials and processing approaches he will bring from the Diao lab.”
For Patel, this research opportunity at NIST combines the intellectual freedom found in academia with the industry’s focus on delivering products. “I am interested in advancing research that has meaningful and practical applications,” he said. “Developing metrology for the interest of the nation is a motivational mission to me.”
During his tenure at Illinois, he gained first-hand experience working with nearby Argonne National Laboratory researchers and witnessed the broad impact that national laboratories have in pursuing applied research and supporting the broader scientific community with access to specialized equipment, resources, and information.
He never imagined that he would become a postdoctoral researcher when he arrived at the University of Illinois 5 years ago. Patel graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and joined the Diao lab to investigate a relatively new group of functional polymers, known as bottlebrush block copolymers, that have important optical and electronic properties.
He expected that he would move on to a career in industry, likely working on fabricating computer chips. But as he neared the end of graduate school, he began to think about what he really wanted to work on and the goal of research in general.
“When you’re an undergraduate, or just starting your Ph.D., you don’t necessarily realize what you value,” Patel said. “But after working for a while, you realize what’s important, and you start to really care about the goals of your research. Polymer self-assembly has huge promise for transitioning towards less wasteful and more energy-efficient manufacturing.”
Beyond polymers, Patel cares about the climate and is interested in science policy. “Growing up in Texas, you can’t escape the fact that we use a lot of energy just to survive—especially when it’s more than 100 degrees outside,” he said. “Climate change is the major scientific problem of my lifetime.”
Addressing this problem is what first drew Patel to research. For his sixth-grade science fair project, he studied the influence of windmill shape on energy generation.
True to his first start in science, Patel has returned to understanding the shape of materials as a means to address a scientific question. The scale and application may be very different but his motivation to make a positive impact remains the same.
Written by Claire Benjamin, Associate Director of Communications