Yunchao Li began his undergraduate engineering education at the China University of Mining and Technology. It was not unusual, he says, for the smallest class size at the renowned institution to be around 100 students. Imagine his surprise when he transferred to the University of Kentucky and began taking materials science and engineering classes.
“I thought it was amazing how small the class sizes were,” Li remembers. “We normally had less than 10 students in each of our materials classes. Professors could pay attention to individual students and students’ questions were solved quickly. Lab classes were my favorite, and because of the smaller class sizes, we could get enough hands-on experience on different pieces of equipment.”
In addition to the ability to interact with professors, Li also found numerous opportunities to engage in significant research, even as an undergraduate. Working with Y.T. Cheng, the Frank J. Derbyshire Professor of Materials Science, Li discovered his area of research interest: lithium ion batteries.
“In Dr. Cheng’s lab, I was able to learn to use the advanced technology and equipment to solve battery-related problems. Through my two years of undergraduate research, I not only acquired many basic research skills for operating experiment equipment, but also the method for designing an experiment aimed at solving a scientific problem,” he says.
While at UK, Li joined Materials Advantage, a student organization with ties to industries interested in materials science and engineering. Through involvement in Materials Advantage, Li made important contacts, traveled to national conferences and visited prominent companies to get a first-hand look at his future line of work.
“UK offered many different ways for me to get connected with industry and prepare for my future job,” he states. “Visiting companies like Toyota, AK steel and GE Aviation and seeing how they approach production taught me a lot.”
Li’s academic prowess enabled him to not only be named the 2012 Materials Engineering Outstanding Senior at the Tau Beta Pi Awards Banquet, he also received several prestigious scholarships, such as the ASM International Bluegrass Chapter Scholarship, Secat Aluminum Scholarship and International Student Scholarship among others.
“The scholarships allowed me to concentrate on my studies and relieved my financial burdens,” he affirms.
After graduating from UK with a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering in 2012, Li was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where he is pursuing a Ph.D. His education is funded through an Energy Science and Engineering Fellowship in the Breseden Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education (CIRE). CIRE, which is jointly led by the university and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, focuses on energy-related research and has given Li a chance to take his undergraduate research into lithium ion batteries to the next level.
“I’m staying with lithium ion batteries because the research I did opened up a field I am now very excited about,” he says. “I am grateful for my professors’ guidance and believe UK changed my future.”