Doctoral student mixes personal passion with technical know-how




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A. Sue Weisler

Susan Spencer works in the “glove box,” a clean-room facility with attached, arm-length gloves that researchers use to touch materials without contaminating them.

Susan Spencer’s personal and professional life collided this summer when the RIT microsystems doctoral student attended the prestigious Climate Reality Corps training in Melbourne, Australia.

She had just started writing her doctoral dissertation on organic solar cells’ capacity as a renewable energy resource and was looking for ways to become more active in a social cause important to her—climate change. The conference provided that opportunity and solidified her focus even more—not only is she immersed in the science of solar cells, but she also believes that they will be an effective solution to reduce the impact of climate changes around the globe.

Spencer is part of a team at RIT creating organic solar cells, a tiny but powerful technology where the cells convert light into electricity.

“We are one of five or six groups in the world that are pushing efficiency boundaries with these solar cells. This is an amazing field because so much potential is there for changing the way humans consume energy,” she said. “I love my solar cells because they can allow vast portions of the population who currently can’t afford solar cells to get in on the solar revolution. I’m pretty nuts about ’em.”

Spencer was selected for the Climate Reality Training initiative established in 2006 by former vice president Al Gore whose documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, highlighted the impact of climate change across the globe.

The international training program consisted of three days of interactive seminars with top scientists, researchers and leaders in the climate change arena today, including Gore. She tied her current research closely to the initiative, and going forward she will have to perform “10 Acts of Leadership,” the required “pay it forward” effort.

Two are already scheduled. Spencer volunteers for the UK-based charity Solar Aid, and she will be the group’s American liaison at an upcoming photovoltaics conference, then later in the fall, at the United Nations. Solar Aid is working to replace kerosene lamps, used primarily in rural Africa for lighting, heat and cooking, with a less damaging energy resource.

Closer to home, she is writing a climate change white paper for the New York State Working Families Party and a series of platform planks for candidates to consider, then presenting this in Albany to state assembly and congressional representatives. On campus, she is preparing informational workshops for students, faculty and staff.

Spencer faces a population on and off campus with mixed and skeptical ideas about climate change, but she is no stranger to challenges—personal or professional.

“Educating people about climate change is important to me because I want to leave this world a better place than I found it,” said the West Irondequoit, N.Y., resident. “I have a daughter that I want to live in a world that is improved by her mother having been there.

“I’m 32 and finishing my Ph.D., and that’s because I dropped out of high school and lived on the street as a drug addict for five years. When I came back to school, I was pretty driven. And during my time here at RIT, I’ve lost both my parents. I’ve taken a lot of my grief and turned it into a desire to show the world what my parents made.”

For information about The Climate Reality Corps in Melbourne, Australia, go to www.climaterealitytraining.org/australia.

201408/researchandscholarship_solarcells_cmyk_sm.jpg

A. Sue Weisler

Susan Spencer works in the “glove box,” a clean-room facility with attached, arm-length gloves that researchers use to touch materials without contaminating them.