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Saint Mary’s senior works with government on new solar cell

| Thursday, August 24, 2017

Saint Mary’s senior chemistry and environmental engineering major Courtney Weston spent her summer in Golden, Colorado during her 10-week internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the Department of Energy (DOE) as part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) Program.

Weston said she spent eight weeks of the internship designing and optimizing an environmental chamber, which will be used to test soiling on photovoltaic glass (PV), which is similar to a solar panel. Soiling occurs when dust falls onto a solar panel or PV glass which causes a loss of efficiency in harvesting energy due to shading and other chemical processes.

Her environmental chamber will be used as a way to produce controlled environments researchers can use during lab testing. Weston said by holding one environmental variable constant, the researcher can then see how other factors affect that variable. Because she finished the environmental chamber the eighth week into her internship, Weston said she was able to conduct her own tests on it.

“Designing each individual part was a minor success,” Weston said. “Having the whole thing done was a big success for me. I finished early, so I was able to conduct some tests when I was done.”

Although each intern is assigned a mentor that assists them throughout the internship, Weston said most of her work was independent. She attributed the success she has had in her field and during the internship to her Saint Mary’s education.

“Saint Mary’s has prepared me in every single way,” she said. “Being in labs at Saint Mary’s was super helpful — I feel like the chemistry department does a good job of allowing you to be independent, so when I was in my internship I was able to work effectively on my own.”

During the first two weeks of her internship she would have meetings with eight senior scientists, but Weston said she was not intimidated.

“Being here at an all-women’s college, you gain confidence in yourself,” she said. “What Saint Mary’s promises you, it actually happens.”

Dr. Toni Barstis, a chemistry and physics professor who has helped guide and encourage Weston’s career at and beyond Saint Mary’s, said she can attest to how much Weston has grown since being at Saint Mary’s.

“Courtney has gained so much confidence over the course of four years, growing from a timid first-year student to a confident fourth-year “STEMinist,”” Barstis said. “She has genuine passion for environmental engineering. She is truly excited about what she is learning and about her future career.”

Weston said her experience with the DOE has provided her with even more confidence to continue striving at and beyond Saint Mary’s.

“Between the meetings with senior scientists and having to present my results, I gained more presentation skills and I became more confident in my ability to conduct my own project,” she said. “Overall, the internship gave me a lot of experience for doing individual work, teamwork and collaborating with different projects.”

Emily Najacht, another senior who is pursuing the same major, said Weston’s enthusiasm in the subject has helped her, as well.

I’ve shared many classes with Courtney,” Najacht said. “She’s very passionate about what she does. Her enthusiasm makes her a great person to be around when working through challenging problems.”

After her experience this summer, Weston is considering pursuing a career involving renewable energy, she said.

“I gained a passion for renewable energy this summer,” Weston said. “I could see myself doing further research in that field.”

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