From the Lab to... Consultancy – Giulia Marcandalli, PhD
In the “From the lab to…” series, we highlight our team’s scientific expertise by learning more about their background in academia and how this informs their work at Catalyze. In this edition, Giulia Marcandalli, PhD, writes about her PhD experiences within the field of electrochemistry, what lead her to leave academia, and how she makes impact for our innovative clients.
Research aiming to answer increasing energy demands
The ever-increasing demand for energy, together with rising global temperature, make it imperative to redesign the energy landscape with a lower carbon footprint and the flexibility to match the dynamic demands of modern society. Energy generated from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, becomes progressively cheaper to produce, yet their intermittent nature and output power limits scalability. Hence, renewable electricity needs to be stored and/or concentrated to enable it to be released upon demand.
How can energy be stored and concentrated? We now enter the fascinating world of energy conversion. Electrochemistry is the science investigating the conversion of electricity into chemical energy; in scientific terms, the “flow” of electrical charges into chemical bonds. In practice, two of the most popular examples of energy conversion are lithium-ion batteries and clean energy vectors, like green hydrogen.
Studying fundamental electrochemistry
Driven by her fascination for photosynthesis and energy conversion in general, Giulia began her PhD in 2017 at Leiden University, in the Catalysis and Surface chemistry group of Professor Marc Koper.
Giulia, “I studied fundamental electrochemical reactions, such as water splitting to generate hydrogen, and CO2 reduction to produce fuels and chemical building blocks. These electrochemical reactions generate the clean energy vectors needed to promote the transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy.”
As Giulia describes, the “magic” of energy conversion takes place at the interface between a conductive material (the electrode) and the conductive liquid (the electrolyte). Driven by the dynamics of the electrochemical process, a microenvironment is established at this interface. Giulia and her research group accumulated evidence of the primary role that the electrolyte has on the energy efficiency of the process.
“We have gained insights into how to control this microenvironment by adding buffering species and tuning the mass transport in the solution to promote the rate and the selectivity of CO2 electroreduction and hydrogen evolution.”
At the end of her PhD, Giulia contextualized their findings on the electrolyte to the end application: the development of industrial electrolyzers for carbon dioxide reduction.
Learning how to frame a convincing story
As Giulia points out, her time in academia came with many rich learning experiences.
“Throughout the years in academia, I have learned how to design a project, set priorities, and the importance of “storytelling”. To have a broader resonance, amazing scientific results are not enough, you need to frame them into a convincing story.”
Giulia adds, “Overall, seeing different scientists at work, I learned that being extremely talented in science will not turn you into a successful scientist. To achieve this goal, you need to have a complementary portfolio of personal and intrapersonal skills. Likewise, in every job you may undertake.”
Finding a new direction: academia to industry
During her PhD, Giulia recalls the feeling that led her to look beyond academia for her post-PhD career:
“My passion for science combined with a strong sense of curiosity dictated my choice to do a Ph.D. I enjoyed the freedom of science, as highly fostered by my supervisor, Prof. Marc Koper. I was lucky enough to learn and grow surrounded by bright and friendly colleagues. However, I did not feel the reward I was looking for.”
After spending many years developing expertise in academia, Giulia considered alternative career paths that would allow her to engage with her diverse range of interests.
“In my opinion, science acquires an added value when it reflects societal needs and can evolve into a product and/or a service that people can make use of.”
Giulia says, “I wanted to put my knowledge into practice, but also challenge my point of view. How could I exploit my knowledge to support the evolution of our world towards a greener “scenario”? How could I grow a more comprehensive understanding of the practical challenges our society is facing? With these questions, I approached the industry.”
Working at the forefront of Green & Sustainable Innovations
In her consultancy role at Catalyze, Giulia has a multifunctional role where she works with pioneering ideas and people in the green and sustainable ecosystems.
“In my role, I am at the forefront of innovations where many different worlds merge together. Science, yes, but also business, communication, regulation, finance… Thanks to my determined character and a strong curiosity about humanistic and scientific subjects, I am thriving in this interdisciplinary role.
“The pace can be high, but it is proportional to the reward. Projects have concrete objectives and timelines, and as you accompany clients through their journey you also become passionate about their innovation. Clients rely on your support, and your contribution shapes a project to boost its success.”
Giulia now works on innovation topics that intersect her past career in academia with entrepreneurship:
“I am enthusiastic about my daily job at Catalyze. I work on many projects in areas that are dear to me – the same topics that drove my career in science. Projects span from green energy, to circular economy, sustainable fashion and more.”
Taking responsibility for impactful projects
Utilizing her experiences in being accountable for her own PhD project, Giulia describes how she is able to take a lead in her consulting for Catalyze clients:
“I use my scientific mindset to analytically break down the project into pieces, process and recompose them into a compelling “story”. Having been solely responsible for my project during the PhD, I have developed a strong sense of responsibility. I now transfer the same level of responsibility to the projects of my clients. I empathize with them, and I put in extra energy that I used to put into my own personal project.”
Read more of Giulia’s research:
- Electrolyte Effects on CO2 Electrochemical Reduction to CO
- Understanding hydrogen evolution reaction in bicarbonate buffer
- Competition between CO2 Reduction and Hydrogen Evolution on a Gold Electrode under Well-Defined Mass Transport Conditions
- Electrolyte Effects on the Faradaic Efficiency of CO2 Reduction to CO on a Gold Electrode