October 11, 2021

Assistant Professor Akanksha Menon joined Woodruff School faculty this summer but she's not new to campus. Menon earned her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering here in 2018 and is back after doing a postdoc. Find out what drew her back to Tech, what she'll be working on in her lab, why she has a passion for her research, what will be teaching, and more in this Q&A. 

How did you end up at Georgia Tech the first time, and what brought you back the second time?
I was a mechanical engineering undergraduate student at Texas A&M, at the branch campus in Qatar (TAMUQ). I was passionate about developing technologies to address climate change, so I started doing research with Prof. Nesrin Ozalp (whom I knew from my thermodynamics and heat transfer classes that I really enjoyed as an undergrad) – we were developing a solar reactor for thermally cracking methane to produce hydrogen without producing carbon dioxide. That research exposure convinced me that I wanted to go to graduate school, and I had the opportunity to present at two ASME conferences in the U.S. where I interacted with graduate students from different universities here. Coincidentally, I was also among a group of students invited to meet with Bud Peterson (our previous President) when he was visiting TAMUQ – and that is how I learned about Georgia Tech! I started looking up grad programs for mechanical engineering and realized that Georgia Tech is highly ranked, one of the best in the field of thermal science and engineering. That’s how I decided to apply here, and I was fortunate to get accepted. I came here to do my graduate studies focusing on energy harvesting/direct heat to electricity conversion using polymers. I then did a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) where I changed my research direction a little to focus on energy-efficient methods for desalination/water treatment.

When I started looking for faculty positions, I saw that Georgia Tech had an opening in energy and sustainability. I decided to apply and interview here, and it turned out that the ME department was really interested in some of the ideas I proposed for the energy-water nexus. So fast forward 8 years from when I came here as a graduate student, I now have my own students! To come back and be part of the research community here again in a very different way was something I was excited about, so that's why I’m back.

The gap wasn't that long. How much is Georgia Tech changed in that time?
When I've talked to people and they said, “Oh, you're going back to Georgia Tech, it'll be such a seamless transition because you know everything.”

I was away for a little over three years, but a lot has changed. Even minor things like the websites that I used to order things or do chemical inventory when I was a student are different now. Most of the processes I was used to have changed with the transition to OneUSG, so it’s been a lot of learning even though some aspects are familiar. Institute leadership has also changed, with a new Chair, Dean, Provost and President. Campus itself looks quite different - there's the whole new café and exhibition hall, the Kendeda building, renovated library and no student center (since it’s under construction). Midtown Atlanta in general has changed a lot more than I would have imagined in three years.

Why did you choose a career in academia?
I honestly cannot think of any other job where you can do fundamental research, technology development, and mentoring, all at the same time.

One of the reasons I decided to do a postdoc at a national lab was to get a different experience of doing research with large teams working together to solve larger complex problems. But I realized that the mentoring aspect and student interaction through teaching was something that I missed. Coming back to the academic setting gives me that opportunity to still do the research that I enjoy (and is hopefully impactful), but while also being able to mentor students.

Who would you say his influenced your career to this point?
It started with something I read – my Uncle gifted a book called Storms of My Grandchildren, written by well-known climate scientist James Hansen. The impact of climate change is something that resonated deeply with me when I read this book over ten years ago, and that's why I’ve worked in this area. My research advisers over the years have also been instrumental in my career, from Prof. Nesrin Ozalp and Prof. Shannon Yee, to my postdoc adviser Dr. Ravi Prasher and frequent collaborator Dr. Jeff Urban. I’ve also been fortunate to have some great mentors, including our former department chair Prof. Sam Graham, who have been an integral part of my journey. Some of the conferences I attended/presented at (beyond the typical academic conferences) were also important in shaping my research interests – like the ARPA-E Summit and the C3E Symposium.

When will you start teaching and what classes will you teach?
I’ll start teaching in the spring semester - probably undergraduate thermodynamics or heat transfer since that is my area of expertise.

What is the focus of your research? Specifically, what projects will you be working on as you start up your lab?
Within mechanical engineering I would fall under the heat transfer and energy systems research area. My group is called the Water – Energy Research Lab or WERL, and our research focuses on developing technologies for the water-energy nexus while providing a fundamental understanding of the thermodynamics and transport processes relevant to these systems. For the water research thrust, we are developing desalination prototypes that use thermal energy and polymers to efficiently separate salts and water. This is a very important area as water is not only important for our consumption, but it is a critical resource for multiple sectors of the economy – power generation/fuel extraction, agriculture, and manufacturing. The other research thrust is focused on developing thermal energy storage materials, i.e., a thermal battery that has a lower cost and can store energy as heat over longer durations compared to lithium-ion batteries. An example application is storing solar energy during the day and then using it at night to provide space heating for buildings. This is important because it enables decarbonization of heat – in this example for buildings, but we can extend this concept to decarbonize industrial processes which is critical to meet climate goals.

In many parts of the world desalinization is crucial to their water usage, while in America it seems to be a newer field. How much research is being done here in that field?
In Qatar where I grew up, 99.9% of the water was desalinated! In the U.S., desalination has received less attention likely because there are more freshwater reserves unlike Qatar which is a desert. In the 1950s there was an Office of Saline Water within the Department of the Interior which was funding desalination-related work, and I don’t know why that ended. Things have picked up now though because the Department of Energy has realized how critical water is to energy. There is interest beyond seawater desalination, which is a commercial technology that operates close to the thermodynamic limit from an energy standpoint. If we look at a power company, their power plants have cooling towers that produce a lot of wastewater and at the same time they need clean water for their condensers -- so if you can treat the wastewater onsite and then reuse it, that's a huge advantage. There’s a growing focus on these non-traditional water sources, and during my postdoc we demonstrated desalination of produced water which is wastewater from oil and gas extraction. From a climate change viewpoint, desalination is important because we will need to build resilience for droughts and diminishing freshwater reserves.

How many students do plan to have in your lab?
I have two Ph.D. students that started this fall - one is working on thermal desalination and the other on thermal energy storage. I will probably keep it at that for a year and then slowly start expanding. In the meantime, postdocs and undergrads are welcome to join!

What is the biggest challenge of being a new professor on campus?
Before I mention any challenges, I want to acknowledge how grateful I am about starting this summer instead of last year when everything shut down. It has been easier because my students can come in and help with building our lab. Faculty and staff are also back on campus, and that really helps when you are starting off because you those initial meetings and conversations are much more effective in-person.

The biggest challenge is that there are so many aspects you have to understand as a new Professor – finance and budgeting, grant writing and submission, and many other administrative tasks as you start a lab. The ME department has different groups for each of these processes, and everyone I’ve reached out to with a question or request been very helpful. We have some great staff in the department that support our work.

When you were doing your Ph.D. here, did you have an opportunity to teach much in the classroom?
I was a TA for the graduate level Organic Electronics class taught by Prof. Bernard Kippelen. I really enjoyed teaching this class because there were students from different disciplines in it, and we modified the syllabus to include lectures that were related to my research in addition to teaching the basics of electronic transport in semiconductors. I also did my teaching practicum with Prof. Asegun Henry and gave a few lectures on designing and analyzing energy systems (combined heat and power system and rooftop solar PV). I was also a CTL (Center for Teaching and Learning) TA Fellow, so I learned a lot about teaching styles, policies and procedures through that experience.

Finally, outside of your work life, what do you like to do for fun?
When I was doing my postdoc at LBNL, I joined the ukulele club and learned to play the instrument. It’s a lot easier to play than a guitar and sounds somewhat similar. I also did a lot of hiking and enjoyed the proximity to multiple national parks in California. I’m looking forward to exploring some hiking trails around Atlanta and North Georgia. Over the past couple of months, I’ve also started playing tennis and enjoy it.