An ECR at the University of Texas

Fatemeh Rezazadeh from the University of Leeds travelled to the University of Texas in Austin supported by the third call of the ECR International Exchange Fund

In a corner room on the fifth floor of the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering Building at the University of Texas at Austin, you could argue that there are a lot of brains in the room, and indeed you are right, but there is also something more important: there is a great deal of social capital. In fact, there lies a treasure trove of deep sense of trust and cooperation.  

I embarked on a research journey to the University of Texas at Austin in early May. The UKCCSRC early career researcher international exchange fund provided this ideal opportunity for me to establish an international research collaboration covering mutual interests on the subject of the post-combustion CO2 capture process optimisation with Prof Rochelle and his postgraduate team.

Prof Rochelle’s research program, called the Carbon Management Program, is focused on the technical obstacles to the deployment of CO2 capture from flue gas by alkanolamine absorption/stripping.  For him and his team, the core objective is to develop and demonstrate evolutionary improvements to monoethanolamine (MEA) absorption/stripping for CO2 capture from gas-fired and coal-fired flue gas.

When I arrived, the team was busy with preparation for the carbon management program’s bi-annual research review meeting for then the week after. Albeit the expected busyness due to the importance of the meeting for the team, the very first impression I got was feeling at home; the environment was so friendly and engaging that made the integration incredibly smooth.

By the virtue of Maeve Cooney’s high quality and attentive administration, my start was quick and simple, which led us to begin the joint research right away. Maeve is Prof Rochelle’s personal assistant. She is a brilliant Irish lady with a great love for nature. As a result of the preparatory correspondences took place months earlier, the research objectives had been defined; the aim was to assess methods to improve the performance of an amine based CO2 capture plant, particularly the CO2 stripping process. I got into work closely with Yu-Jeng Lin, a senior PhD researcher passionate about the stripper column optimisation with incredible knowledge about the carbon capture process and a registered patent under his belt. The time was a challenging factor and stakes were very high for the team. They had to be ready for the upcoming meeting, and mock presentations and fine-tuning slides demanded full attention and a free mind. Despite all, I was impressed by the resilience and the coherence I found in Yu-Jeng. He was perfectly into the research we were doing and we were progressing well. We developed and simulated two alternative flow-sheets to improve and optimise the CO2 stripping process for gas-fired flue gas applications.

The bi-annual research review meeting was a great opportunity for me to get into details of each member’s core research objectives. Besides, I had the chance to meet and network with the research sponsors. As an outcome, I was able to initiate a parallel research topic with Darshan Sachde, another brilliant senior PhD researcher of the Prof Rochelle’s group. Darshan is specialised in CO2 absorption and absorber column studies. I found him very well organised with clear direction toward his research. Previously, I had done some research on improving the performance of absorber columns. We talked about possible ideas and alternative configurations and finally came up with a joint research subject to work together.

I had the opportunity to meet Prof Rochelle on a regular basis. What was remarkable about these meetings was how passionate he was when he was discussing about the techniques of carbon capture. I found Prof Rochelle an inborn teacher by all means. If you are lucky enough to sit with him and initiate a technical talk, just remember to carry enough papers and a pen, because there will be just ideas pouring out that you would not want to miss out.

I found the meetings with Prof Rochelle truly inspiring. He believes his first and outmost priority is educating and training his students to be capable and skilful engineers. Our meetings usually exceeded their set timings, and often we had to stop to have something because of ultimate usage of our brains. The experience made me curious, I thought to myself, where do people like Prof Rochelle come from? What is it that fuels this much perpetuating eagerness and hunger for creativity? And what is it that makes this group obviously successful and thriving?

And I learned these are the questions Thomas Malone and his team at the MIT’s Centre for collective intelligent took to find out that what it takes to build great teams? By doing two studies with almost 700 people, working in groups of two to five, they have found that individual intelligence (IQ) or having a high collective IQ in team doesn’t make a big difference. Their experiment showed that the crucial factor that explains a group performance on a wide variety of tasks and distinguishes the high performing teams is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking and the proportion of females in the group. These are fascinating results, aren’t they?

Except the last aspect, having chronically less population of female researchers in engineering fields, I could easily find evidences of the first two aspects of high achieving and prosperous teams in the Prof Rochelle’s team.

Maintain a healthy team is a part of each member’s responsibility. A good habit of the Prof Rochelle’s team is their group lunch including Prof Rochelle on each Thursday, when everybody get together and go to a restaurant at or near the campus and share social talks while enjoying their lunches. They frequently go hiking and camping together. I believe these are not just nice things to do; in fact these are necessary to get to know one another. The group they know each other well, understand each other better and thus are more tuned in to one another. So they become more cooperative and compassionate.  

Now, it is easier to understand why I felt at home as soon as joint the team, and why I didn’t feel any pressure as a newcomer? The high level of empathy in the team acted as a coherent glue for the social connectedness I felt when I found myself there.

Another important aspect I experienced there, even as a temporary member, was the fairness and equality. I was given the opportunity to meet Prof Rochelle every week, exactly similar to his postgraduate researchers.  When the environment is fair, nobody feels superior or inferior, and everybody believe nothing any member said is wasted, so everybody will contribute to their outmost. It just needs the right environment to evolve and flourish.

Aren’t these the attributes of a successful and innovative team?

I’ve had the great honour of getting to know and learn from Prof Rochelle and his team. With their endless supports and contributions, I was able to define and carry out two different research subjects which are immensely beneficial to my research. Greater than technical benefits, I’ve learned valuable life lessons. I have learned the environment you are interacting with matters, and if the environment is right, everybody has the capacity to perform extraordinarily and do great things, and the driving forces to make this happen are trust and cooperation. And what is remarkable about trust and cooperation is that they are human traits not regulatory instructions. We feel the trust and sense the cooperation and act upon them.  

Acknowledgements

I would like to take the opportunity to thank the UKCCSRC for providing the funding to bring this research visit into being and would highly recommend all PhD and or post-doctoral researchers to apply for the international research fund.

I would like to thank Prof Rochelle for having me and appreciate his time and effort in sharing with me all valuable knowledge and insights. I am always honoured and grateful to be a student of his. My special thanks to Maeve Cooney, for providing me endless support and necessary arrangements for and during my stay.

I would like to especially thank Yu-Jeng Lin and Darshan Sachde, and appreciate their kind and seamless contributions and patience towards me.

Last but not least, I would like to thank all the members of the Prof Rochelle’s group I met during my stay. Thank you all.

P.S.: while writing this blog, I received an email from Maeve updating me with the exciting news that Prof Rochelle has been given the “SINTEF and NTNU CCS Award 2015”. He received the award for his long-lasting contributions within CO2 capture, in particular for his efforts in development of post-combustion technologies. And this is not the end of the story, Maeve told me Prof Rochelle dedicated this award to his group, stating: “[Prof Rochelle] I am extremely proud of the work done by my graduate students that made this award possible.” I sincerely congratulate them and wish them prosperous success in all their future endeavors. [to read more about the award, please check see here]

Author(s): 
F. Rezazadeh
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