David Kohn TC ‘11

David Kohn, a senior in Trumbull College, is interested in alternative energy research. Photo courtesy of David Kohn.

When David Kohn, a senior in Trumbull College, first stepped foot onto Yale’s campus five years ago, he had no idea that he would end up pursuing intensive studies and independent research in environmental engineering during his undergraduate years. As a freshman, Kohn planned to major in Ethics, Politics, and Economics. However, after taking Energy, Engines, and the Environment with Professor Alessandro Gomez, Kohn discovered that his true passions lay in engineering and alternative energy. Feeling a disconnection between policy making and scientific research, Kohn came to the conclusion that technology and science would be the most effective and potent way for him to contribute to society. “Scientific progress has caused the most lasting and quickest changes to the world,” he said.

And Kohn is well on his way towards leaving his own mark on the world. He currently works in the Transformative Materials and Devices lab headed by Dr. Andre Taylor at the Yale School of Engineering. The Taylor lab focuses on electrochemical systems and alternative energy, including the development of fuel cells, batteries, and organic solar cells.

With his work in the Taylor lab, Kohn recently attended a prestigious conference in Boston hosted by the Materials Research Society. Kohn designed and built a nano-layering process for performing spin-spray layer-by-layer assembly. “The process is similar to a common nano-layer process that is called layer-by-layer (LBL),” Kohn explains. “We’re basically trying to make very thin films of composite materials such as polymers and carbon nanotubes with both good electrical and ion conductivity to build an electrode for a fuel cell.” Although the amount of time required for assembling any amount of usable product through the traditional LBL method can approach an order of weeks, the new spin-spray technique characterized by Kohn has the potential to shorten production time down to hours, minutes, and possibly even seconds. Eventually, Kohn hopes to apply the novel spin-spray technique to build electrodes for fuel cells.

The top half of the above graphic depicts the LBL process, while the bottom half explains the spin-spray technique characterized by Kohn. Image courtesy of David Kohn.

Kohn began his work in the Taylor lab at the end of his junior year and then proceeded to take his following year off from school to work in the lab full time. Kohn thoroughly enjoyed his year of research and recommends the experience to other aspiring scientists, because it provided him with a fresh perspective to approach his studies. “Doing research and getting to really dig into a problem helped me think about what I wanted from the rest of my education. Sitting in group meetings and coming up with ideas were really useful to me. When I came back into classes, I could ask more interesting questions and be much more engaged.”

Kohn’s aspirations to make a change do not stop in the lab. Beyond research Kohn holds a variety of interests ranging from tutoring to theater. During his sophomore and junior years, Kohn served as a public school intern by mentoring and tutoring local New Haven students. In addition, Kohn has served as the Director of Development for the Independent Party of the Yale Political Union and is currently vice president of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society. Recently, he has performed in the production of Elijah, a senior project by one of his friends. Kohn is further combining his interests in the arts and sciences by pursuing an independent project, in which he is using scientific and engineering materials to create metal sculptures.

Although Kohn is undoubtedly a young scientist on the rise, he notes that his career aspirations are still unclear. “In an ideal world, I would like to work at or restart something like Bell Labs,” Kohn said. Kohn further explained that he would like to work in a lab where interesting questions can be freely investigated and where research can be conducted without a paper or publication as the end goal. “Places like Bell, TI [Texas Instruments], or IBM – they had research environments a little different from today, and I would love to work in a place like that. We will see if it exists.”

Kohn has clearly been an impressive student at Yale and has equally ambitious goals for his future. Kohn attributes his mindset to one of his inspirations, Dr. Richard Hamming, who is known for his work in mathematics and computer science. “Hamming talks about asking big questions. If you are not working on the biggest question that you can in your field, ask yourself: ‘Why not?’ Doing research helped me relate the small problems that we encounter in daily study to those larger problems that I find the most interesting.”