John Kitchin-Undergraduate Research Office - Carnegie Mellon University

Faculty: John Kitchinjohn kitchin

  • Undergraduate major: B.S. in Chemistry at North Carolina State University.
  • M.S. in Materials Science at University of Delaware
  • MS thesis title: Molybdenum nanoclusters on titanium dioxide single crystal surfaces (2002)
  • Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at University of Delaware
  • Ph.D. dissertation title: Tuning the electronic and chemical properties of metals: Bimetallics and transition metal carbides (2004)

Courses taught at CMU:

  • Mathematical Methods of Chemical Engineering
  • Unit Operations Laboratory
  • Surfaces and Adsorption
  • Molecular Simulations
  • Chemical Reaction Engineering

Current research: Professor Kitchin's research group focuses on energy and environmental applications of electrochemistry and in computational methods for studying chemical reactions at catalyst surfaces. He investigates CO2 capture and utilization, electrochemistry, fuel cells and electrolyzers, and multiscale ab initio modeling of heterogeneous catalysis.  We are investigating solid sorbents and electrochemical processes as methods for capturing CO2 from the exhaust gas in a power plant. We are developing synthesis methods to modify the porous cathodes of solid oxide fuel cells with high surface area infiltrants to increase the efficiency of the fuel cell. These same synthesis methods are being used to create new, mixed-metal oxide electrocatalysts for oxygen evolution. These electrocatalysts have applications in the efficient separation of oxygen from air for oxy-combustion applications and in the efficient production of hydrogen from water using electrolysis.  We use quantum mechanical calculations to parameterize simpler, faster models that can then be used to predict and understand the interactions of molecules with metal surfaces.

Did you participate in research as an undergraduate student?  If so, how did that experience help you in guiding students?  Yes. It helps me to remember that different people start learning to do research at very different stages of life, with different levels of preparation and with different goals.

Why do you work with undergraduate researchers?  Does it impact your own career directly?  I am an educator. I enjoy teaching others to do things that I enjoy doing. I also enjoy the level of enthusiasm and commitment to research I experience with undergraduates engaged in research. Undergraduate research impacts my career in many ways, ranging from a direct expansion of my research program to longer term development of future colleagues.

How do you approach and structure your mentoring of undergraduate researchers?  Why is it valuable for you?  It really depends on the student. I try to match the student with a project that is commensurate with their skills, goals and the resources in my lab. Sometimes that means they work with a graduate student, sometimes it means they work with me, and sometimes it means they start something new on their own.

Did you benefit from a faculty mentor in your undergraduate or graduate years?  I have benefitted from mentors of all kinds throughout my professional career starting from the time I was an undergraduate, through the time I worked in industry, and as a graduate student. Even today I continue to benefit from faculty mentors as I continue building my career as a professor. Mentors are a critical part of a successful career. They can help you balance many competing demands on your time and make sure you prioritizing your efforts appropriately for your goals. You should always identify people that can serve as mentors in your career.

What do you learn from working with undergraduate researchers?  New people working on a project bring fresh perspectives to the problems. They ask questions that have not been asked before, and they ask for explanations of problems that are usually taken for granted by more experienced researchers. These often lead to new insights into a problem, and they reinforce the foundation of understanding the research is built upon.

When you face an obstacle in your work, what do you usually do? What advice do you have for students who may face a glitch or hardship in a project?  There is no substitute for hard work and persistence. After exhausting everything I can think of to solve a problem, I will often go back to the basics. Why should something work? What assumptions or conditions are required to make it work?  What could go wrong that would prevent it from working. Look at the problem from as many angles as you can, and get others to look at it too. Then, I will try a simpler problem. By stripping away complexities you can sometimes identify what causes something you expect to work not to work. Sometimes I run experiments just to verify that something that used to work still works. Often I will work on something else while I think about the problem. Many times I have learned something in another project that is applicable to the current project.

Research is about discovering new ideas. You have to make sure you are always learning from everything you do because if you are not learning, it is not new. Failures can be a learning experience; did it fail because the idea was wrong? Or bad? Poorly executed? Failures are not all bad. At one time I was a whitewater kayaker. In kayaking you learn to roll, so that when you flip over you can roll back up. I think if you are not rolling every few minutes you are not pushing yourself hard enough, and you will not become a better boater. It is the same in the lab. If you aren't experiencing things that don't work, you aren't trying enough ideas and you aren't testing your understanding enough to come up with new ideas that others have not had before. But, you have to learn from each idea that does not work. You cannot simply repeat things that do not work and expect them to start working.

If you could summarize your own research experience in one word, what would it be?  Fulfilling.