Samuel Nicaise has a plan, and he’s not afraid to show it. But then, Nicaise needs to have a plan: as head of UK’s Solar Car Team, he has people counting on him. He can handle it, though – this electrical engineering senior is the winner of the 2009-2010 Astronaut Scholarship. The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award, given to approximately 18 undergraduates each year studying engineering and the sciences, is worth $10,000.
A native of Covington, Ky., and a graduate of Holmes High School, Nicaise is no stranger to getting ahead. When he came to UK he knew that he wanted to do research connected to renewable energy. “I entered electrical engineering kind of by chance,” he says. He knew that electrical engineering had a lot of math, and he figured it would be his best bet for researching renewables.
“I see it as a place where I can really make a serious difference,” Nicaise says. “There are so many reasons to find alternative ways to energize the world.” There are challenges, but “we need to reawaken the thinking that says, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ and reapply that attitude,” he says.
Before he even started classes at UK, Nicaise became involved with the Solar Car Team. A friend of a friend was team manager at the time, during the summer of 2005. Then, the team was working on Gato Del Sol III, to compete in the North American Solar Challenge later that year.
“I thought it was great because it was an immediate application of something I was interested in,” Nicaise says. “And it looked like fun! The thought of racing a solar car across the country – how cool is that?”
On the Solar Car Team as a freshman, Nicaise did a lot of fiddling and learned some valuable skills. “I didn’t know what a microcontroller was. I didn’t know how to program,” he says. “So I picked up on things like that, little by little.”
As he progressed through his studies at the College of Engineering, Nicaise did what many engineering students do and took part in the college’s Cooperative Education Program, which pairs engineering students with national employers to let them earn real, on-the-job experience (and pay) while still students at the College of Engineering.
Nicaise worked first with GE Energy in Greenville, S.C., a world leader in the production of wind turbines. When Nicaise reported for work, he was bummed at first. The job wasn’t technical at all – instead, he served as a liaison between external customers and various internal groups. “But then I realized it was great, because I got to see so much of it,” he says. “I worked with project managers, engineers across the world, and power companies and other customers with problems.” On top of that came a newfound perspective. “A wind farm takes at least two years to go from first starting up to powering someone’s lights. You need long-term goals in mind and a plan, along with the ability to change your course if things don’t go according to that plan,” he says.
If the co-op with GE Energy gave Nicaise understanding into project management and goal-seeking, his experience with two other co-op sessions in Versailles, Ky., taught him lessons of a different sort. Nicaise worked with customKYnetics, a company that researches and develops rehabilitation equipment for people with lower-extremity neurological problems. The co-ops gave Nicaise a chance to put his skills as an electrical engineer to work. “It was almost yin and yang,” he says. “I went from GE, a huge company where I was doing project management, to a small company where I ran my own experiments. This helped effect a change in Nicaise’s thinking. “I went from thinking of myself as a student of the discipline of engineering to thinking of myself as an actual engineer.”
He also gained two more key insights from his co-op experiences. After the co-op with GE Energy, he realized “I really like wind but photovoltaics are so much more interesting to me.” So he decided to go from renewables (wind) to a new specialty: photovoltaic cells.
At the same time, the co-ops with customKYnetics helped Nicaise come back to the Solar Car Team full of new ideas. “Before I left, all the problems I was trying to solve felt like black magic,” he says. “Then I came back and knew what needed to be done. More importantly, I knew that I could do it. It was the ‘Aha!’ moment for me.”
In the summer of 2009, Nicaise took over the Solar Car Team’s leadership and also started to really focus on his solar cell research. “As team leader I need to make sure that the freshmen can pick up on all the things I needed to pick up on as a freshman,” he says. “I don’t expect them to do it all right away, but I want to be in the position to help them grow as students.” The next solar car, Gato Del Sol IV, is currently being built by the team. Nicaise plans to have a working electrical system by March, and have the solar system in place by early May.
Niciase heads up the Solar Car Team’s meetings, which are twice weekly on Mondays and Saturdays, around three hours for each one. He also usually has one or two other unscheduled meetings each week, lasting two to six hours each. At these meetings, Nicaise goes around talking to the heads of the Solar Car Team’s various subgroups (such as electrical systems, mechanical systems and the business team). He makes sure that everyone is on track, and is ultimately responsible for keeping the entire team running smoothly. Altogether, Nicaise probably spends 20 hours each week working on Gato Del Sol IV. Sometimes he even goes in to clean the work garage when he has a few spare minutes, because he’d rather not have team members worrying about needing to keep things tidy. They have more important things to do.
On top of all this, Nicaise takes a full load of classes and tutors for ten hours each week, besides the time he spends on his own photovoltaic cell research. Reflecting on all his responsibilities, Nicaise doesn’t seem too worried. “I keep pretty busy,” he says. “But I’m pretty chill. That’s good. I don’t get stressed out.”
“Solar cells and my research have been the only things that have overarched my entire college career and tied it all together,” Nicaise says. He’s glad that he chose the University of Kentucky. “The biggest thing UK has is opportunity,” he says. “The number of opportunities is overwhelming.” Nicaise isn’t just talking about academic opportunities, either. He also means the kinds of opportunities that come outside the classroom, such as his time with the Solar Car Team and the co-op program. “I’m a huge proponent of the academics – but at the end of the day if you don’t have something to augment what you’re learning, you’re missing out,” he says. “UK really has chances to augment your learning.”
Nicaise’s UK graduation date is drawing close, but he already has his eyes on the future. He’s applied to multiple materials, chemical and electrical engineering graduate programs, and he’s already seen several acceptances. He hasn’t yet decided where he wants to go. In addition to the Astronaut Foundation Scholarship, Nicaise might be taking home another award soon: he’s been named a finalist for a valued Hertz Fellowship. The fellowship is a unique no-strings-attached $250,000 award given to exceptional applied scientists and engineers so that they can have the freedom to pursue their own research.
No matter where he chooses, though, Nicaise knows he’ll stick to photovoltaic cells. He hopes he can apply his skills in order to achieve significant change in the field. “The world is up against the challenge of moving beyond whatever we’ve done for electricity in the past,” Nicaise says. His vision for the future? “I plan on getting my Ph.D. in solar cells,” he says. Nicaise envisions solar cells on each house that will last 20 or 30 years, so that each house can power itself. He wants to work to make that vision a reality.
“You just put your best foot forward and know that no matter what happens it doesn’t change what you’re going to do,” he says, reflecting on his time at UK and working on the Solar Car Team. “You just try your hardest and if things fall into place you just take it and run with it.”