Going from a smaller university in an urban area to a larger university in a smaller college town might have been difficult for some, but for mechanical engineering graduate student Murtaza “Murt” Zohair the transition was smooth.
Zohair is from Aurora, Ill., part of the greater Chicago area. Growing up he was often reading books as well as science magazines and had the opportunity to visit the museums in the Chicago area, particularly the Museum of Science and Industry.
“I remember science exhibits and demos that were sometimes related to the things I’d read,” said Zohair. “That started my interest in science, and it carried forward as I went through school.”
For his undergraduate studies, Zohair attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the intention of majoring in biology but found that he was more interested in his courses pertaining to materials science and engineering (MSE). This, coupled with the research opportunities available in MSE, led Zohair to switch majors. He completed his B.S. in MSE in 2018 and then went to Vanderbilt University to pursue a Ph.D. in interdiscplinary materials science.
At Vanderbilt, he worked in the lab of mechanical engineering faculty member Cary Pint. But when Pint accepted a position on the ME faculty at Iowa State in Spring 2020, Zohair had to decide if he’d stay in Nashville or if he would follow Pint to Ames. He chose the latter and attributed his reasoning to Iowa State’s strong reputation for engineering, coupled with the connection he developed with Pint, who serves as the Charles Schafer (Battelle) Chair of Engineering at Iowa State, as his mentor.
“Dr. Pint has an infectious passion for the work we do and is personally invested in the success of his students. That, along with being a little closer to home, made moving the right decision for me,” Zohair said.
Zohair observed that it was interesting going from big city of approximately 670,000 inhabitants to a college town roughly a tenth that size. The two universities are also very different in size with Vanberbilt having an enrollment of roughly 13,500, 6480 of whom are graduate and professional students, compared to Iowa State’s enrollment of nearly 32,000, 4979 of whom are graduate and professional. (Based on 2020-21 enrollment figures.)
“There is a small-town sense of community that I’ve gotten from everyone I’ve interacted with at ISU which is unique for a big school,” he said, adding that he enjoyed his experience at Vanderbilt and has fond memories from his time there.
At Iowa State, much of Zohair’s research in Pint’s ENERG @ ISU Lab focuses on characterizing the failure and decay of batteries. One of his projects involves building nanomaterial-based sensors into existing battery structures so that the energy density of the cell is not compromised. Another project involves electrochemical synthesis of nanomaterials and designing interfaces in energy devices.
Outside of the lab, Zohair loyally follows his hometown sports teams, particularly the Chicago Bears and Chicago Bulls. He also enjoys watching movies and TV shows, Judas and the Black Messiah and the Queen’s Gambit being a couple of his favorites. During quarantine he has experimented with baking and is currently on a kick making his own sourdough bread. He said he appreciates that the research labs and other campus facilities such as the rec center have been able to re-open with modifications, which he said “brings back some sense of normalcy while still prioritizing safety” during this era of COVID-19.
Zohair plans to complete his Ph.D. in 2022 and hopes to continue working on materials for energy applications in industry or at a government lab after graduation.