Senior Spotlight: Sarah Berlinger, Renewing Energy

For electrochemical engineer Sarah Berlinger, who comes from a family of artists, developing renewable energy alternatives is the ultimate creative expression. Climate change has placed humanity at a “pivotal point,” she says, and engineers innovating better, safer, and more efficient ways to power the world are making an incalculable impact.

“Engineers’ potential to impact people on a global scale is truly thrilling,” Berlinger says. “To me engineering is about having the skills necessary to effect meaningful change in society.”

A native of Somers, NY, she was drawn to Columbia Engineering as a top-tier school that was part of a larger liberal arts institution and afforded extensive opportunities to work closely with faculty and join a research group early. The fall of her first year Berlinger joined Professor Alan West’s Electrochemical Engineering Lab, working with West and Professor Scott Banta on a coupled biochemical- and electrochemical-reactor system utilizing a genetically engineered bacterium to produce fuel and chemicals from the carbon in ambient CO2. Her junior year, she took on research into how lead-acid batteries fail and how to recover much of their capacity.

“The chemical engineering faculty as a whole have been so supportive, and in particular Professors West and Banta, who have given me incredible opportunities and guidance,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.”

Columbia has helped her multitask and cultivate collaborations, Berlinger says, as well as pursue her passions for photography, crafts, and baking. After graduation, she is heading west to attend UC Berkeley to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering, focusing her research on electrochemical technologies including fuel cells and batteries. Three years of her work will be supported by a prestigious graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation. In the longer term, she hopes to continue working on the cutting edge of energy research at leading institutions.

“The inspiring people are what I’ll miss most about SEAS,” she says. “Everyone is crazy smart, and so incredibly driven and talented and passionate about so many things. After four years here, people are still surprising me in the best possible way.”

—by Jesse Adams

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