NMH Student’s Passion for the Environment Leads to Scholarly Article

Jan. 31, 2020 — Protecting the environment has been important to Thomas Zhang ’20 since he was a child in Beijing, where air pollution was a problem — there was a near-constant haze to the air that gave him a dry throat and limited many outdoor activities. “I thought, I can learn about this and maybe there’s something I can do,” he said.

On his own, Zhang began learning about how environmental and chemical engineering could be used to protect the environment. At NMH, he joined the Task Force on Sustainability and the Ecoleaders — the student group charged with raising environmental awareness on campus. He studied solar power generation. He began to learn about graphitic carbon nitrides, which are compounds that are thought to have applications that are good for the environment. He reached out to a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and secured an internship in a chemical engineering lab there last summer. 

Then, late last fall, Zhang published his first scholarly article. He was the second author — along with Berkeley professor Samuel S. Mao and three others — on a scientific paper titled “Graphitic Carbon Nitride-Based Low Dimensional Heterostructures for Photocatalytic Applications.” Published in the journal Solar RRL, the paper focuses on new materials that can be used in solar power generation. 

“Specifically,” Zhang explained, “we were looking at graphitic carbon nitrides as photocatalysts in water-splitting — which means breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen — using less energy than other methods. We also looked at how they reduce pollutants by turning carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into more useful hydrocarbons.”

The goal, he added, was to “bring more attention to this material and allow people to consider it in a new way, or consider researching it as an application for manufacturing.”

Mao said that while it’s not uncommon for a high school student to intern at a leading research institution, it is unusual for a student like Zhang to write for a scientific publication.

“He read a good amount of publications of the subject area, and asked a lot of questions, which helped him understand the underlying science in a short period of time,” Mao said. “His performance at laboratory was outstanding, and he wrote a professional research report, a portion of which became part of the article.”

Zhang said, “My educational experience at NMH allowed me to believe in my abilities and follow my passion for research. NMH taught me how to take action for what I believe in.”

Zhang says he will continue to work on environmental issues. This semester, he’s taking an NMH course in global ethics and climate change to increase his awareness about the social aspects of the field. In college, he would like to major in environmental engineering or a related field.

Zhang travels back to Beijing every three months or so, and he wants to continue to split his time between wherever his studies take him and his home. He says he is motivated to continue working in the environmental field by the fact that the city has experienced marked improvement in air pollution over the past two decades. “Things are getting better, and that’s really inspiring,” he said.