Stevens professor Stephanie Lee wants to make the future brighter.
In more ways than one.
Growing up in Morris County, New Jersey, and inspired by her parents, Lee was always an exceptional student. She attended science fairs and science camps as a child.
"I originally planned to become a doctor, or maybe a biomedical engineer," she recalls. "I always knew I wanted to use science and technology to help people."
Eventually, Lee focused on sustainable-energy research as her contribution to global solutions.
"At MIT, I did research during all four of my undergraduate years," she recalls. "There is an entire formal program dedicated to that. So I knew I could do research. But for a long time I didn't see myself as a professor. Maybe it was subconscious; nearly all my professors were men, were older, and were clearly geniuses. I just didn’t see myself as one of their colleagues."
After completing a Ph.D. at Princeton, Lee did a stint as a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. During that time, she was required to teach a class.
And that experience, it turned out, made all the difference.
"It was so gratifying," Lee says of her first classroom full of students. "For the first time, I saw the excitement when students 'get' something. I saw how a teacher can make an impact, can positively shape students' experiences and choices."
Ever since, she has made time to guide others.
A mentor at all levels
A fixture in Stevens' Chemical Engineering & Materials Science department since 2014, Lee has repeatedly reached out to Stevens undergraduate and graduate students, including significant numbers of women. She has also brought New Jersey elementary school- and middle school-aged girls into her world.
In 2017, for instance, Lee attended the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day as part of the annual Stevens contingent that visits a Jersey City elementary school. The program exposes urban students to STEM educational and career options at a young age.
For several years — until recently becoming the mother of two young children — she also served as a mentor with the Center for All Abilities program for children with special needs and abilities in New York City's Chinatown district. That relationship included campus visits, where she demonstrated the university's imaging equipment on coins, electronic circuits and other objects for the students.
"One of my former mentees, whom I met when she was in second grade and is now in high school, will be coming to Stevens this summer to work in my lab," notes Lee. "I'm so excited about this!"
And in the spring of 2019 she brought a Hoboken Girl Scout troop to McLean Hall to learn about crystal-engineering science.
"I think it's so important to engage students in STEM while they are young and everything is still 'cool,’” she says. "It's so exciting to see the passion for science come out early."
Lee's own Stevens students also say she has been an invaluable mentor on matters both inside the classroom and out.
From the travails of academia and lab work to job markets, graduate schools and the tricky balancing act between parenthood and career many students will eventually face, she has served as both research collaborator and advisor.
"She's an amazing mentor," says Kate Moyer '16, a Ph.D. student and National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow in Vanderbilt University's interdisciplinary materials science program who researches batteries and other energy-storage technologies. "Her teaching method was different: She didn't use textbooks, but rather had us read high-impact journal papers to teach us new principles.
"To this day, I remember more from her class than any other I took at Stevens."
When it came time to apply to and ultimately choose a graduate school, Moyer again went to Lee.
"She has been through this journey. Her feedback on my application and her advice about choosing a school, a lab and your future colleagues made a world of difference for me personally," says Moyer, who was accepted to all four graduate schools to which she applied. "I made the right choice because of the advice she gave. And despite her busy schedule, she continues to keep in touch.
"I am forever thankful for her guidance and friendship, she is a role model for me and so many others."
"She really just wants the best for her students," echoes Alexandra Samper '19, a chemical engineering graduate from Houston who performed research in Lee's lab for six months and planned to work in R&D with Estée Lauder after she graduated in May. "She wants to know, 'What can I do to help you learn best?' And it's harder for professors to do that, because it takes more time."
Samper, who attended a conference with Lee and co-authored journal papers with her lab team, says Lee also helped her choose her career path.
"She's the reason I got my internship," notes Samper. "She helps you get to know your different options and find out what you really want to do, whatever that may be."
Lighter, portable, inexpensive solar cells
Inside the lab, Lee remains as formidable as ever. In February, she was selected for a prestigious NSF CAREER Award, supporting ongoing work to develop improved, more flexible materials for solar panels.
The proprietary process her team has developed utilizes carbon-based plastics formed with crystal arrays, and can be performed at normal temperatures and conditions. That represents a significant upgrade over existing silicon-based solar panel materials, which are heavy, brittle and must be manufactured at high temperatures.
The potential upside is big: cost-effective, portable, easy-to-manufacture solar technology for communities worldwide.
"Imagine a world in which installing solar panels is as easy as painting them on your roof," she says. "Imagine printing your own solar panel from an inkjet printer. Or a panel of clothing or a window or device screen that generates energy."
NSF's support for the research will last five years. Lee's mentorship of Stevens' young minds, one hopes, will continue far longer.
"Looking back," she concludes, "not having women professors probably made a difference to me. It took me longer to get into teaching; I had convinced myself I couldn't cut it. But now I love mentoring students and seeing them grow. Hopefully I can positively influence those who are considering academia and research."