Alumni Profile: Jeff Grossman

Jeff Grossman is a leading energy storage and conversion researcher at MIT whose grounding in the principles of interdisciplinary research began at the Beckman Institute.

Jeff Grossman’s first exposure to interdisciplinary research came when he joined the Beckman Institute in 1994. The experience made a lasting impression.

Grossman, a professor and researcher at MIT, is not only a believer in an interdisciplinary approach to doing research, but a passionate advocate on the subject. He created an experiment for generating possible research ideas that he called speedstorming (speed brainstorming) in which two students from different disciplines had four minutes to come up with a possible topic to explore together. Grossman and his collaborators produced two papers on the possibilities of generating cross-disciplinary ideas using speedstorming, but the experiment is but one example of Grossman’s commitment to thinking creatively about doing research.   

Grossman, who is the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering and holds appointments in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at MIT, has a research focus on developing advanced algorithms to address challenges in science and technology, especially in the area of energy conversion and storage. His research group at MIT testifies to his commitment to the interdisciplinary approach.

“In my own research group I strive to have people with different backgrounds,” Grossman said. “I have postdocs with strong chemistry backgrounds, strong physics backgrounds, strong materials science backgrounds, and strong mechanical engineering backgrounds – all in the same group. What you get is an overlap of phase space between these different disciplines that I believe creates more opportunity for intersection and ideas. I think it also provides a really nice environment for the student.”

And this belief in the benefits of cross-fertilization between disciplines goes back to his days at the University of Illinois, earning a Ph.D. in physics, and working with former Beckman faculty member David Ceperley. Grossman said his experience at the Beckman Institute had a big influence on him.

 “Beckman gave me a real impression of a functional setting where interdisciplinary research is actually happening, where all these different disciplines are in one place,” he said. “That early view was very helpful in showing me that this is interesting. As a student experiencing that, I found it exciting and I internalized it. I said this is something that not only should be reproduced in other buildings, institutes and campuses, but could be a model for a group itself.”

Grossman’s research approach is also highly translational, with potential applications in the areas of solar cells, energy conversion and storage, and solar fuel, to name a few examples. A recent paper on which Grossman was corresponding author reported on a thermo-chemical approach to capturing the sun’s energy for storage and usable heat that has advantages over traditional photovoltaic technology.

Grossman’s contributions to projects are on the computational side, employing theory and creating simulations that can then be used by experimental groups toward developing solutions to energy-related issues.

“I develop and apply computational methods that we use to probe how energy conversion and storage work in different materials,” Grossman said. “Any kind of energy conversion and storage material whether it be a solar cell, battery, hydrogen storage, solar fuel – all of these things go through certain fundamental processes, a set of mechanisms.

“We use computational tools to do two things: one, understand those mechanisms and predict what they are at a very basic level, and two, use that understanding and insight about what makes these tick to make advances – whether they be incremental or game-changing – in the costs of those materials.”

Grossman has a big picture perspective on the longer term goals of his research, choosing energy topics for a very specific reason.

“I wanted to work on something that is directly relevant to global challenges,” he said. “It keeps me up at night, it gets me excited, and to connect the work that I do to real problems that society is facing is exciting to me.”

Grossman advises students to be just as passionate about whatever path they choose to follow, regardless of the discipline. 

“All of these disciplines are wonderful for giving a solid foundation in terms of what you want to go after, but think about what it is that is going to get you most excited,” he said. “I think students need to keep that in mind as they go through their studies; what really is captivating them? How do they want to make a difference?

“Sometimes that gets a little lost with all the exams and stress and just wanting a degree. I think it is important to think about what is it that keeps you engaged and working on these problems.”

This article is part of the Winter 2011 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.