Q&A with Molecular Engineering Graduate Student Abdul Moeez

Filed Under: MolE PhDNews

May 14, 2024

Fulbright Enrichment Seminar on Entrepreneurship, standing in front of a sign that says Fulbright, Connecting People. Connecting Nations.
Moeez at the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar on Entrepreneurship: From Lab to Market in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Molecular Engineering graduate student Abdul Moeez came to UW to advance materials for clean energy. Through unique training opportunities in data science and access to state-of-the-art research facilities, he’s developing autonomous systems to accelerate the fight against climate change.

MolES: What interested you in studying at UW?

Moeez: While getting my bachelor’s degree in materials science & engineering from the Institute of Space Technology in Pakistan, I became interested in clean energy materials as well as computational and data science strategies, specifically from an energy storage perspective. During my graduate school search, I found UW’s Clean Energy Institute (CEI) and its Washington Clean Energy Testbeds as well as the Data Intensive Research on Enabling Clean Technologies program (DIRECT, which has since ended). I started at UW as a master’s student in materials science & engineering (MSE) with my Fulbright Fellowship and was selected as a DIRECT Trainee. I worked on energy storage devices with Professor Jun Liu, the Washington Research Foundation Innovation Chair in Clean Energy, including potential alternatives to lithium-ion batteries like sodium-ion batteries.

I wanted my Ph.D. to be interdisciplinary, focusing on integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence with materials science and chemistry experiments to enable rapid discoveries for clean energy applications. I found out that the Molecular Engineering graduate program at UW enabled me to reach my objectives through the faculty, facilities, and other resources available on campus. Another thing that motivated me to apply to the UW again was serving as a senator in the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) for the MSE department during my master’s. It was a very valuable experience to learn and practice policy development to improve student experiences. 

MolES: You grew up near Margalla Hills National Park, which form the foothills of the Himalayas. Can you tell us how this impacted your research interests?

Moeez: My initial interest in research was due to the need to develop sustainable solutions to climate change. I come from South Asia, which houses a quarter of the world’s population while also being one of the most vulnerable regions in terms of climate change. If you Google “floods in Pakistan,” there has been a flood almost every year since 2010, with the major ones in 2010 and 2022 making news in this part of the world. In 2022, the flooding affected around 33 million people — at one point, about one-third of the country was underwater. For a decade now the weather patterns have been unpredictable, especially monsoons, and every year we have record-setting rainfalls that the country can’t manage. And recently, the frequency of Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF) has increased. There are over 7,000 glaciers in the northern areas of Pakistan, and with increasing global average temperatures, these are climate change-induced disasters waiting to happen.

Moeez posing with arms up in number one fingers, with the space needle in the foreground.
Moeez at the Seattle Half Marathon finish line.

With these and a severe energy crisis in the country around the same period, I naturally became inclined towards research on clean energy technologies, initially from a materials perspective. But fighting accelerating climate change requires accelerated science. We need to develop clean energy solutions as quickly as possible to protect vulnerable communities. My Ph.D. aims to minimize the resources (energy, time, chemicals) spent on achieving the desired functionality, while also producing materials that can be utilized in energy storage, photonic, or biological applications.

MolES: Tell us about your clean energy research.

Moeez: I am working in the Pozzo Research Group, and my research involves the development of autonomous systems for synthesizing nanostructured materials. Energy researchers are interested in nanomaterials because their properties depend on shape and size, and that morphology depends on the synthesis process. We can optimize a reaction through trial and error, but along with material costs, each iteration of the experiment takes significant time and mental energy.

By integrating microfluidics, characterization tools like Small Angle X-Ray Scattering (SAXS), and data science (AI/ML), I’m working to automate that decision-making process so we can quickly and economically find the correct conditions to produce a desired material.

I am also a Clean Energy Institute Graduate Fellow, which has enabled me to improve my science communication skills through K-12 engagement activities and workshops. I’ve had the opportunity to broaden my perspective on clean energy research by networking with CEI fellows from other fields of study like computer science, chemistry and political science. I recently received a CEI travel grant which partially funded my trip to the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) in Berlin, Germany. The month-long trip encompassed more training on SAXS lab management, instrumentation, lab automation, high-throughput experimentation and characterization. These skills will accelerate my own research and enable me to help other researchers design their own experiments and gain experience with SAXS.

Moeez surrounded by wild flowers and snowy mountains.
Moeez hiking to the Hidden Lake Fire lookout on North Cascades Highway.

MolES: What are you up to outside the lab?

Moeez: I actively volunteer for New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) as a virtual STEM mentor, which involves coaching teams of high school students for environment, health, or technology competitions. Students from diverse backgrounds and all parts of the world bring their own social and cultural experiences to solve important issues in sustainability. I also volunteered for on-campus events like “Introduce a Girl to STEM” or “MEM-C Research Experience for Teachers (RET)” programs.

MolES: What advice would you give to future MolE Ph.D. students?

Moeez posing with flags during a game of flag football in a fenced-in area.
Playing flag football with fellow MolE colleagues.

Moeez: Build connections and find your pack. Experiments may not always work, research may encounter setbacks, but if you have the right people by your side to motivate you, you’ll find a way to succeed — luckily, I have my MolES cohort! We go out for dinners, retreats and celebrations. Since the start of the program, we have been regularly participating in intramurals as the ‘Mole Ole Ole Ole’ team. MolES also has a very active graduate student association. Huge shout-out to them for planning and organizing outreach activities, events and workshops. Everyone in MolES is welcoming, supportive and takes care of each other.

MolES: What would you like to do after finishing your Ph.D.?

Moeez: I’ve really enjoyed teaching. I can see the direct impact of my work. Helping people understand the challenges we face — and the possible solutions — amplifies brain power and makes science go faster. I taught for two years as a lab instructor after my bachelor’s and then again as a lecturer after my master’s, both in MSE at my alma mater and loved every part of it.

So, for now, the plan for after my Ph.D. is to remain associated with academia in the United States or Pakistan. I want to teach at the undergraduate or graduate level with opportunities for research, so I can continue to explore solutions for a sustainable future.