Jaron van Dijken
Jaron Van Dijken grew up in northern Alberta and did his undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics at the U of A. While his original plan was to study biomedical engineering and eventually head to med school, a hot job market was too good to resist and he ended up working in the energy sector. But he jumped at the opportunity to return to grad school, and is now in the third year of his PhD at ECE, working on next generation solar cells and helping put the U of A on the international map.
What made you choose graduate studies at the U of A?
A lot of what I’m doing hinges on nanofabrication and characterization of nanotech devices. The U of A, and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in particular, have some really good resources in terms of expertise and facilities for doing any type of nanotechnology work, especially nanofabrication, which is a key part in building next-generation solar cells. So the facilities and the expertise here were just kind of perfect for what I wanted to do.
What does your current research involve?
We’re trying to build a new type of solar cell. There’s an emerging class of solar cells, called organic photovoltaics, which promises super low-cost solar energy through the use of plastic or carbon-based materials. We’re looking at building the ideal solar cell architecture for these materials by structuring them with the nanofabrication techniques developed by Dr. Michael Brett here at the U of A.
You were recently part of a team that placed third at the
Global Venture Challenge
. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Michael Thomas and I decided to build a commercialization case for making supercapacitors with the nanofabrication technique used in our lab. As an engineer, it was great to get more acquainted with the business end of things and learn from actual venture capitalists. We went through three rounds of judging, and the judges were primarily venture capitalists who routinely look at these presentations in the real world. They gave us lots of feedback and it helped us recognize the massive difference between the goals of scientists and the goals of businessmen. It was also a good opportunity to work with some business students as well. They wanted teams that were formed of engineers and scientists, but also business students and lawyers. We assembled a team of two engineers, a business student from Carnegie Mellon University, and my sister who is doing her masters in business in The Netherlands. We put together this diverse team to create a really well rounded pitch for our product. The judges and a lot of other students and team advisors ended up commenting on how impressed they were. I think we made a good impression for the U of A and for the technology.
What are your plans for when you’re done your PhD?
Ideally, if we could come up with an innovation in the lab that we could make a strong case for commercializing, then going from a PhD to a start-up company for this new innovation would be fantastic. And I think this is the perfect environment to do it because there are a lot of resources and willpower, and a large appetite in Alberta for growing the technology industry. But you never know what kind of opportunities will come in the future.
Any advice for incoming graduate students?
Take whatever opportunities you’re excited about as they come and don’t be scared that you don’t have what it takes. You never really realize your potential until you step out and take a risk. The other thing is get as much exposure to different types of professional or volunteer experiences to see what you’re excited and passionate about.