Anna interned as a battery characterization engineer at QuantumScape, a company in San Jose, California, USA, that develops solid state lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles. Keep reading to learn more about her co-op journey, the applications of material characterization techniques to battery engineering, and her advice for school, work, and networking!
How did you get to where you are today?
I credit my co-op experiences to my mindset. Most recently, I was employed in San Jose, California, but this wasn’t my first endeavor outside of Canada. My second co-op was in Bangkok, Thailand, followed by Auckland, New Zealand of all places. Each was an amazing, constructive experience in my career development where I was able to learn about new cultures in relation to their work styles. I also learned quite a bit about myself, what I want my future to look like, and how to become more independent as an employee and in life. While applying, I always had a vision in my mind of what I wanted to be doing or where I wanted to go. I was first captivated by medical devices, so I started emailing professors and doctors working in the field. Eventually, a gastrointestinal surgeon got back to me and sent me an invitation to work at his start-up in Auckland for a sensor detecting myoelectric signals of gastric disorders. When I decided I wanted a job in batteries, I googled a list of 100 battery startups and applied to each one until I got an interview. Preparing for interviews is also super important since it’s the first opportunity you really have to show the hiring manager what you can bring to the table. Once I knew I had the chance to work at QuantumScape, I dedicated time every day to expand my knowledge on the concepts listed in the job posting and brush up on past content I had studied on material characterization. Doing this made me feel confident going into the interview, and I ended up having an awesome technical conversation with my soon-to-be supervisor about my previous work and academic background. In the end, what it really comes down to is the effort you put into your career growth. Sometimes it might land you in uncomfortable positions, but in the future, you’ll be thankful you challenged yourself to enter a new field, learn a new skill, or experience a workplace culture completely different to that in your home country.
What are the main responsibilities of your job? What project(s) have you taken on?
While working as a battery characterization intern at QuantumScape, my responsibilities were quite diverse. My team was super helpful in giving me guidance and freedom to work on what I was most interested in. I had my own project, but I was also given the opportunity to contribute to a number of other tasks my team was working on. My project included using characterization techniques such as Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman spectroscopy, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) to better understand the cathode-electrolyte interface of prototypes. Besides this, I helped image cathode samples using atomic force microscopy (AFM), and conducted in-operando x-ray diffraction (XRD) studies on battery cells I built from scratch. After the lab work was done, I helped with processing the acquired data using various spectrum analysis softwares, Gwyddion data visualization, and Python. After accumulating all this data, I would then make a presentation for my supervisor with the outcome, assumptions that can be made about the materials based on the results, and ideas for further studies.
Any tips for getting a similar position to yours or entering a similar field to yours?
If you’re interested in battery characterization as a nanotechnology engineering student, you’re in luck! I think the program alone set me up for success in the field. Many of the techniques I learned in class were directly applicable to my job, so I’d definitely recommend taking the time to fully understand how they work and their applications. Thermogravimetric analysis (TGA), differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), Raman spectroscopy, AFM, XRD, and FTIR are a few of the crossover topics. Learning what parameters you can adjust to get a more favorable outcome and how different materials will respond to the same technique will really make the difference when troubleshooting your tool setup. For example, when using XPS, your data may be skewed due to resulting positive surface charge. The solution would be to activate the flood gun to counter this effect, and then acquire your spectra.
Making time to nail down the basics of battery technology is also key in securing a position where novel technology is being developed. This will help you identify what areas of further research are actually important given each material’s intended use and potential degradation pathways.
Additionally, while coding wasn’t a major part of my position, it definitely enhanced the contributions I could make to my team through data processing and visualization. My team preferred using Python, but I’m sure having a background in any language will help you succeed in this type of position.
Lastly, networking can make a huge difference in breaking into a new field. You may feel that your past jobs were completely irrelevant to where you want to be, but in my experience for co-op positions, that’s totally okay! Every position has some overlap, even if it’s solely soft skills.
Further, I know many students who want to go abroad, and something I noticed while being in California was the saturation of not only Canadians, but also Waterloo graduates. Who knows where else in the world you’ll find someone who knows exactly what it means to be a student from here! Where possible, definitely try to make use of these types of connections. For some people, it comes a lot easier to build professional relationships. Personally, I felt I had to break down a bit of a mental wall to introduce myself to potential employers. Once you realize nothing negative can come from reaching out, so many new opportunities arise besides those on a job board!