Sean Shaheen (pictured left) a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, no longer works 70-hour weeks as he did when he was a postdoc. Sure, his working days are busy, even frenzied at times. But these days he makes an effort to carve out personal time for himself on weekends, and to balance his love of nature with his passion for research.

For Shaheen, personal time is usually spent outdoors. A self-proclaimed "weekend-warrior," he goes hiking and rock climbing in the Colorado mountains every chance he gets. This time alone recharges his batteries and fuels his imagination. "Usually I get my best ideas when I'm outdoors," explains Shaheen. "It can get so busy around the lab that you have no time to really think, so time away from work is very important to me."

Seeing the Light

More than 6 years after getting his Ph.D. in physics from University of Arizona, Shaheen works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the nation's premier laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. For the past 3 years he has been exploring ways of improving the performance of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), with the hope of someday using solid-state lighting to replace current approaches to commercial and residential lighting. Shaheen and his team are also developing a new generation of organic solar cells that are lightweight, flexible, and can be manufactured in large volume at low cost.

Getting His Bearings

While still working on his Ph.D., Shaheen secured fellowship funding, partly from the National Department of Energy and partly from University of Arizona, that allowed him to do research in different academic and government laboratories in Arizona and New Mexico. The funding allowed him to work in first-class facilities while also climbing the local rocks in some of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges.


Sean Shaheen holding a photovoltaic cell.

But it was his time as a postdoc fellow in 2000-2001 at Austria's Linz Institute for Organic Solar Cells where he made his mark. Shaheen's work yielded energy efficiencies never seen before in organic photovoltaics. His career opportunities opened and he landed his current job at NREL. "That one paper has become the one that everyone who works on OLEDs cites, and so it had basically made my career."

Working at top-notch institutes while a postdoc, Shaheen believes, gave him the advantage of networking with many of the world leading photovoltaics scientists. His supervisors encouraged him to travel to conferences and workshops around the world, and to set-up collaborative projects; Shaheen is proud of the fact that all of his publications include international co-authors.

For those entering the job market, he warns, government hirings are few and far between. "There's a lot of competition in getting national lab jobs. There tends to be more equipment than people." Consequently, grad students and postdocs are better off looking for jobs in industry and academia. The University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, and University of Michigan, he says, are creating ambitious renewable energy programs.


Toward the Horizon
Shaheen himself may someday move back toward academia; having worked in government for a few years now, he appreciates the focus on commercialization but misses the freedom to explore research topics that don't necessarily have commercial applications. "I like to push a little bit of science and get a little nugget of information out of it, but it doesn't necessarily have to have any practical applications in mind."

But he is in no hurry to leave his current job. NREL offers a "fantastic" work environment with state-of-the-art equipment and great colleagues. And then there are the superb climbing getaways, which he finds so important in keeping himself balanced in body and spirit.

Sitting on a cliff ledge or mountain-top ridge somewhere gets his juices flowing, but sharing in the excitement of discovery with his postdocs and grad students can be just as exhilarating. "To think that tomorrow I or one of my students will go into the lab and make a device that can really change the way we do things--it's almost a religious motivation."

For more information on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), check out their Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is the Canadian Correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.