Return to Brown feels like home

As an employee of General Motors, Yue Qi was involved early with the Collaborative Research Laboratory partnership established between GM and Brown University. Continuing these collaborations with Brown colleagues as her career progressed from industry to academia, Qi’s return to campus in July as the newest engineering faculty member was eased by the familial feelings she already had for Brown Engineering.

Yue Qi was in Providence the weekend before COVID-19 shuttered campus, as part of a March 2020 student visit day meant to encourage the best prospective graduate students to join Brown Engineering the following fall. Qi had already accepted her new position as the Joan Wernig Sorensen Professor of Engineering and was beginning the task of outfitting her laboratory with the graduate students she wanted. But by the time she would make it back to campus 26 weeks later for her official start date, College Hill, like everywhere, was sheathed in masks and social distancing.

It was no deterrent for the woman who believes barriers are meant to be eliminated.

 Yue QiIn 1996, when she had received her bachelor’s degree in materials science and computer science from Tsinghua University, and was looking for her advanced degree, “America was the center of technology, and if you wanted to study something new, it was natural to come to the United States,” she said. So she made her way to the California Institute of Technology for her Ph.D. in materials science, studying atomic simulations.

An internship with GM while at Caltech opened the door for future employment. With graduation looming, she considered her options, and nudged by the feeling that industry did not know the early importance of atomic simulations, returned to the automobile industry leader. “It seemed like more of my group mates went to national labs and academia, but I wanted to try this,” she said. “I felt like I wanted to convince the mainstream that atomic simulations were important. The thing was, General Motors didn’t really know what to do with me. So I was given freedoms. It was quite the luxury to talk to different people to figure out which projects to focus on.

“Modelers translate practical problems to critical questions that can be addressed by thousands of atoms. So that required my co-workers and me to come together to decide what was important. In real life, many things happen together. In atomic modeling, you want to pick one or two very important processes (or mechanisms) to study at a time.”

One of those things she examined during her time in GM’s Global Research and Development Center was the grain boundary structures of aluminum panels to find ways to improve them for strength and flexibility. She also worked on both fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries to try “to understand how batteries fail so we can make them last longer and be safer,” she said.

It was while she was there, she was sent on assignment to spend two weeks during the summer of 2003 at Brown, hosted by Bill Curtin. “For me coming to Brown is not coming to a new place, it’s like an old, familiar place. Over the years I have produced joint papers with Brian Sheldon, Bill (Curtin), K.S. Kim, Allan Bower, Vivek Shenoy, and Huajian Gao. I’ve been on the Ph.D. committee of several students and hosted them for summer research at GM. I am very familiar with Brown faculty and students.”

Brown is very diverse, very collaborative. And there are no boundaries between different disciplines.

Yue Qi Joan Wernig Sorensen Professor of Engineering

She left General Motors in 2013, accepting a position at Michigan State University where she earned tenure, was promoted to full professor, and served as the inaugural Associate Dean for Inclusion and Diversity in the College of Engineering. At MSU, she created the Materials Simulation for Clean Energy (MSCE) Lab, which has now moved into the sixth floor of Barus & Holley. In this virtual lab, multi-scale simulations methods are developed to design materials atom by atom. All of the materials she studies are critically important for an energy-efficient and sustainable future. Her current projects include designing oxides to generate hydrogen fuel by splitting water, designing interfaces for safer solid state batteries, and designing electrode materials for high energy and long lasting Li-ion batteries. Her new challenge is to explore synthetic chemistry with the Center for Synthetic Organic Electrochemistry (CSOE) at the University of Utah which was awarded a $20 million National Science Foundation grant to improve the sustainability of synthetic chemistry.  

Qi will be co-teaching ENGN 40 (Dynamics and Vibrations) next summer for first-years, alongside Professor Bower. The summer third term is one of the products of the University’s response to COVID-19 and de-densifying campus. First-years are invited to study on campus in the final two of the three terms in 2020-21, reducing campus housing density and accommodating extensive testing, tracing, and public health measures. 

Her route back to Brown seems natural and seamless for the woman with an affinity for supercomputers and a penchant for supporting women in engineering.

“I am very impressed that our undergraduate population is 40 percent women,” she said. “There is a theory in material science called the percolation theory. I use that to say if everyone makes six connections in materials, that’s a cubic lattice, and if you have more than 30 percent of the nodes occupied by women, then you have a connected pathway. Many properties will grow quickly beyond this threshold. Our women engineering students are beyond this critical threshold so they have a connected network to support them.

“Many other engineering schools may struggle at the 20 percent level. Women students here should not feel so lonely anymore because they see so many around them. I am eager to talk to them and see their experiences, and especially after studying at Brown, will they keep doing engineering as their career? I think that’s important. Having more faculty in the classroom to talk to them will also be important.”

Qi channels her own experiences as a young female in science and engineering when she speaks about the loneliness women can face in male-dominated academia and industry.

“You develop this thick skin to survive. It was a really wise person that told me that you have to change the norm. For more women, or any minority, to study engineering, you cannot ask everyone to just change their behavior to fit in. You have to change the environment. Eliminate the barriers. So anyone who wants to do it, can do it.

“Brown is very diverse, very collaborative. And there are no boundaries between different disciplines. At a school like this, you can walk beside great scientists and talk to them,” she said. “Here, there are a lot of scientists that I admire and I want to be their colleague. I feel honored to join them. It’s like coming home to family, because I already know so many people here.”

 -Beth James