James Smith ’14 always liked building things. He grew up in his grandfather’s woodworking shop, cobbling together eclectic creations like wooden planes and rocket ships. Grandpa also was an electrician, and put Smith to work in places too tight for an adult. He didn’t mind. “I like working with my hands,” Smith said. “I still have my bucket of Legos.”
In high school Smith also developed a love for math and chemistry. He chose to attend Davidson after meeting some impressive chemistry professors during his investigative visits to the college.
He hasn’t been disappointed. Davidson has allowed Smith to bring his passions together through independent research into solar cell technology.
Smith developed a friendship outside class with Professor Durwin Striplin. It wasn’t long until Smith asked to work with Striplin on independent study research. Their collaboration has flourished. The project began in fall semester 2012, continued during the summer through a Davidson Research Initiative grant, and is continuing for both semesters this academic year.
One of the best parts of the work has been the opportunity to build a resonance Raman spectrometer. The device takes a “fingerprint” of excited dye molecules that may be useful in dye sensitized solar cells. The team, which includes senior chemistry major Elise Held, hopes to catalog the fingerprint of enough dyes that they can determine the behavior of dyes without having to test them with a spectrometer. That knowledge may speed up the process of creating more efficient solar cells.
Striplin added, “These are cool because they could be used architecturally. They have an aesthetic quality that could be integrated into the structure of buildings.”
Striplin gets to build something also—something he calls a “legacy of students.” During his 18 years on campus he has worked with dozens of students like Smith and Held who have gone on from Davidson to excel in graduate school and scientific careers. “What’s wonderful about research is that you can build a deeper mentor relationship with students,” he said. “Oftentimes they go on to do things that are way beyond my capabilities. So helping them along the path becomes my real legacy, rather than publications and presentations.”
In this photograph in the Martin Chemical Laboratory basement, Smith and Striplin make adjustments on the laser.