- Thursday, Sep 12, 2013
This month, Alcalde featured twin chemical engineering Ph.D. students who are working at UT Austin's cutting-edge nanomanufacturing center and thinking big — while thinking really, really small.
Written by Dorothy Guerrero. Published in the Sept/Oct edition of Alcalde.
Meghali and Sonali Chopra are identical twins. They both have long dark hair, bright smiles, and have jointly agreed that Sonali will wear bangs and Meghali will not. They never went through that rebellious phase of forging their own paths.
In fact, they’ve been colleagues and collaborators as long as they can remember—ever since they were nano themselves. In elementary school, the Chopras were put in separate classrooms to encourage individual development. But it didn’t take. “I’d sit through the whole day and I’d be like, ‘Where is Meghali?’” Sonali says wistfully. “And then at recess, we’d just run toward each other, sit in the corner, and read together.”
At Plano East High School, the girls played competitive doubles tennis. They practiced up to four hours a day, competed at nationals, and were offered scholarships to Carnegie Mellon, which they turned down to study chemical engineering at Stanford. “Winning things together made us want to continue to have success together,” Meghali says.
Before leaving Plano, the twins developed a strategic plan for their advanced education. “We didn’t want to waste time in lab working on technologies that wouldn’t be available for another 10 to 20 years,” Sonali says.
The pair graduated from Stanford in 2011 and promptly launched their own startup, a sodium-sulfur battery company called Vi Energy. “Our vision was to start a company where we would be producing batteries and see them put into cars,” Meghali recalls, “but when we started making the long-term vision and talking to more investors, we realized that’s really not that feasible in the U.S.” They needed a team of scientific mentors to help them move forward, and that’s what led them to NASCENT.
NASCENT is the much-needed acronym of UT’s program for Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The mission of NASCENT is to take nanoscience discoveries from the lab to the marketplace, and to create future leaders of mobile computing and energy devices. The Chopras’ combined curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit made them ideal PhD candidates in the program.
“[UT] was basically like, ‘We’ll take you, and we’ll help you do what you want to do,’” Meghali says. “And we thought, ‘This is perfect,’ and we learn something every day here.”
Modern nanotechnology — which involves manipulating and controlling individual atoms and molecules — has been around since the early 1980s, but industries have often struggled to translate nano discoveries into viable commercial concepts. That’s where nanomanufacturing comes in.“Imagine you had an iPhone with a battery that would last a whole week as opposed to one day,” Meghali says. “[Nanomanufacturing] is the study of making these really high-level, high-tech technologies.”
Not surprisingly, the twins are excelling at UT and have become leaders among their peers after only one year. Roger Bonnecaze, co-director of NASCENT and Meghali’s advisor, says, “I’m quite confident that she will be among the best graduate students I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.” He notes that Meghali just won the Jeff Buyers Memorial Award in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering—an award normally given to a student who has been in the engineering school for 3-4 years.
The praise is equally lavish for Sonali, who recently won a National Science Foundation fellowship. Her advisor, John Ekerdt, associate dean of research at the Cockrell School of Engineering, points out that the fellowship puts her in an exclusive group of students across the United States. “She stands out in the sense that she has a natural ability to lead,” Ekerdt says. “[There’s a] sense of how to get others on the team to buy in to what needs to be done and contribute to solving the problem.”
In their short time at UT, the twins have also designed a college-level course for underrepresented high school students. They consider themselves fortunate to have grown up in a household where higher education was always the goal. “I feel like we were so lucky,” Meghali says. “Very few people can say, ‘Yes, both my immigrant parents have PhDs and supported me all the way through Stanford, and then allowed us to take a year off to do something crazy and start our own company.’ I want to be that person for someone else. And I definitely recognize that we did not do this alone.”