By Douglas Esser
Malia Steward has learned research never fails. Even a disappointment is another step closer to eventual success.
It’s a lesson Steward takes from the University of Washington Bothell where her accomplishments have been recognized with a Graduate Research Fellowship Award (GRFP) to pursue a doctorate.
Advisers believe Steward is the first UW Bothell student to receive the competitive GRFP from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF selected 2,000 awardees out of 12,000 applicants this spring for the prestigious opportunity to receive graduate study funding. The fellowship provides $34,000 annually for three years within a five-year period, plus $12,000 to the graduate institution.
Steward will graduate from UW Bothell this summer with a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. She hopes to start a doctoral program in mechanical engineering in the fall at the University of Washington in Seattle.
For the past four years, Steward has been a research assistant with Seungkeun Choi, an associate professor in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics who studies organic solar cells. These cells are a promising alternative to silicon-based solar cells and could lead to low-cost, lightweight solar modules. The research aims to improve the light-trapping efficiency of the cells. Steward has been helping Choi test materials, sometimes using the University’s new scanning electron microscope.
Steward would like the technology to help nations such as Tonga, the South Pacific kingdom where she was born. “My goal in the future is to help underdeveloped countries mitigate fossil fuels that contribute to climate change,” she said.
Steward was adopted and grew up in California with a family that moved to the Seattle area when she was in high school. She remembers, when playing with blocks as a child, hearing her parents predict she would become an engineer.
“I’ve always had an interest in building things, anything creative and involving math,” Steward said.
Teachers encouraged Steward to maintain her interest in math and science through school. In college, it was sometimes challenging — finding herself one of the few women in a class. It was more challenging to hit a wall in her initial research experiences.
“I knew research was my passion, but when I first started there were continuous failures of experiments,” Steward said. “There’s a lot of trial and error. A lot of times I’d question myself: Is this right? Am I doing a good job with this? Is this the right path for me?”
Weekly meetings with Choi kept her on track.
“That’s where his encouragement and support really made a difference to what I’m doing,” she said. “Each time I would have a challenge, he would always be the one who looked at a different perspective. He would never focus on the negative side of research.”
Steward transferred to UW Bothell from Bellevue College. After taking a class with Choi, she started as his research assistant in 2014 and continued tin his role through her 2016 bachelor’s in electrical engineering and her master’s program. She has co-authored two research papers and participated in two conferences, one as a primary presenter.
Choi said Steward has mastered the microfabrication technologies necessary to advance her knowledge of organic solar cells. Now, with her GRFP resources, he said, “I am for sure she will be very successful in Ph.D. study.”
Choi’s mentorship is typical of the one-to-one guidance students find at UW Bothell from professors, advisers and career counselors, Steward said.
“He goes above and beyond in explaining things to make sure you understand it,” she said. “That really helps me look at research problems in simple terms.”
Steward would like to become a professor herself. “It combines research, being a teacher and being on top of cutting-edge technology,” she said. “I enjoy sharing the knowledge of research and sharing that passion.”
Steward encourages other students to stick with research through trial and error to experience all the benefits, including critical thinking, problem solving, presentation skills, time management and patience.
“You’re bound to fail. You’re bound to make a mistake,” Steward said. “It’s not going to turn out the way you expected. But you have to learn from that, and then you keep going. By the time you complete your project goal, you’ve acquired so much.”