Michael Thomas is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Hailing from Dresden, Germany, Michael found his way to the U of A thanks to the University’s international recruiting efforts. Since arriving, he’s begun research on thin-film technology, help found the U of A Nanotechnology Student Group, and was a member of a team that recently placed third at the Global Venture Challenge. Michael took some time to talk to us about his research and being an international student in ECE.
What made you choose graduate studies at the U of A?
After I did my physics diploma in Germany, I was excited about going to a Canadian university for my PhD. At first, I was particularly interested in UBC and the U of T. But then the Vice-Provost of the U of A International Office gave a presentation about the U of A at my hometown university. I had never heard of the University of Alberta before, I must admit. But when she gave that presentation, she talked about the nanotechnology cluster which is developing here and the NRC National Institute for Nanotechnology. So I decided to apply here also. During the application period I built a good relationship through email with my supervisor Dr. Michael Brett. Important for my decision wasn’t just the facilities, but the fact that I had really good correspondence with Dr. Brett and could see him being interested having me as a graduate student. In addition, it was a great coincidence that one of his graduate students was in Germany for a conference at the time and could meet with me personally. I showed him Dresden while he told me everything about Edmonton. The communication with both was very good. Therefore, I thought this is the ideal place - the ideal research, the ideal people, and the ideal facilities.
You're currently working on solar cell technology with another ECE grad student, Jaron Van Dijken. Can you explain a bit about your current research?
My research is similar to Jaron’s, although I use a different layer architecture than he does. Many next generation solar cell devices, such as organic solar cells are built like sandwiches; you need a variety of layers to make them work. These devices are not only cheaper than conventional solar cells, but it’s possible to deposit them on flexible surfaces. You can actually make rolls of foils of solar cells, incorporate them in different infrastructures, or apply them to consumer electronics. So they have great potential to drive existing markets or open up new markets we can hardly imagine of today.
You were recently part of a team that placed third at the Global Venture Challenge. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
The feedback from the judges was extremely constructive and gave us a completely new perspective on things. We had to change our presentation every day, because every day we learned something new and really helpful. We were highly motivated and worked hard, but we didn’t expect to achieve a third place. The competition was so strong, and everybody just did great jobs, that in the end it really came down to the presentation. Because of Laura van Dijken [team mate and Jaron’s sister] we could improve our communication on the business level and achieve a, at least for us, great result.
What are your plans for when you’re done your PhD?
It’s hard to say what will happen, but I can see a really bright future for high technology in Alberta. As a future role, I would be excited about helping connect Germany’s with Alberta’s high technology industry.
Nanotechnology is still emerging, so it’s hard to tell what the benefits will be. I believe it’s important to have a better knowledge of how the technology works before you start trying to realize and implement it. The PhD gives you that deeper understanding and could be important if you want to apply your knowledge in industry or business later.
Any advice for future international graduate students in ECE?
For international students, I believe it’s important to understand the Canadian working or business culture as good as you can. If you understand both cultures well you’ll be able to bring both together. Where other people won’t necessarily see connections you will see new opportunities.