Faces of the Foundation: Ruby Lai

March 26, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

When Hertz Fellow Ruby Lai graduates this June, she’ll be armed with a PhD in physics, years of physics and materials engineering experience, and a drive to change the world.

How she’ll go about changing it is an open question.

Her first stop is an internship at the Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene program to improve wastewater treatment technology in the developing world. “Growing up, I would visit my grandmother’s house in a very poor and rural area of China, and there were no toilets there, so I have a very personal experience with that,” she says

At Gates, Ruby will be helping develop a request for proposals to bring new technology into making wastewater treatment cheaper and more easily deployable. “They’re hoping to inject innovations from other fields more quickly than might otherwise have happened”

Just as many first-year PhD students go through several rotations in different labs to help decide what research direction they want to take for their dissertation, Ruby hopes to use the first year or so after her PhD to “rotate” through a series of internships, looking for areas where breakthroughs in materials science can make a big difference in how the world works.

This isn’t the first time Ruby has sought experience outside the lab to direct her research. In the lab of Yi Cui at Stanford, she is working to make the manufacture of extremely thin silicon cheap enough that it’s economical to deploy in flexible solar panels – ideally thin enough to roll over roofs or other surfaces like a rug. This, too, is something Ruby has personal experience with – after a few of weekends spent installing solar panels with the nonprofit SunWork, Ruby became all-too-familiar with the difficulty and expense of maneuvering 50-pound rigid panels on slanted roofs.

In the last four decades, there has been a 100-fold reduction in the cost of solar power hardware an installation – remarkable progress towards making renewable energy more economical. But, says Ruby, this progress has largely been thanks to incremental improvements in efficiency and scale. “So we can do even better,” she says. “This is an area where scientific breakthroughs could really make an impact.”

Ruby started at Stanford working in a different lab, researching ways to use ultracold fluids to sense the most minute details of objects’ surfaces. But as cool (literally!) as the work was, she says, “I was more interested in working on more applied science, in making a difference.”

Thanks to her Hertz Fellowship, Ruby was free to switch labs, and even to take time in the middle of her PhD to explore different her options. “It supported my ability to take a step back and learn more without having to worry about paying my rent.”

But the part of the Hertz Fellowship that Ruby is most grateful for isn’t just the unrestricted funding; The important “fellowship” is the one she sees between the many other fellows she interacts with on a daily basis, whether at Stanford, at the Hertz retreats and workshops, or in her search for a meaningful career. “I’ve met many great friends, great colleagues, who support me and who inspire me,” she says. “Any time I go to a workshop or meeting I come away invigorated and inspired to do research that makes a difference.”