Makita Phillips, NSBE’s National Leadership Institute chair for 2013–14, looks for ways to keep things cool in a hot area of STEM research. A mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University, she works with a multidisciplinary team, in the Materials Science and Engineering department, to detect and avoid “quench behavior” in superconductors.

Avoid a quench? To the science layman used to hearing the words “quench” and “thirst” together, that may sound confusing. Phillips explains.

“Superconductors are materials that can carry a high amount of electrical current, with negligible resistance, at cryogenic temperatures – 77 to 4.2 Kelvin – which is extremely cold,” she says. “Each superconductor has a set of critical values, above which it becomes just a normal conductor. In the case of critical temperature, above this value you can develop a ‘hot spot.’ If you’re unaware of the hot spot development and continue to pass current through this material, you can damage the superconductor. The ‘quench’ is the actual development and growth of this hot spot. It’s a bad thing.”

Superconductors may revolutionize technology in many fields, including sustainable energy, which is Phillips’ area of interest. Since 2007, she has developed computer simulation models that show superconductors’ thermal behavior and how the materials quench. Her research earned her second place in NSBE’s Technical Research Exhibition in 2010 and 2012.

Phillips, who attended STEM middle and high schools in Prince George’s County, Md., and earned her bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering at Florida A&M University, says she may not have considered getting a Ph.D. without her involvement in NSBE. During the 2008 Annual Convention, in Orlando, Fla., she attended a presentation by NSBE National Advisor Gary S. May, Ph.D., now dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech. Dr. May showed statistics about the small number of women pursuing graduate degrees in engineering.

“The statistics upset me,” Phillips says, “and I thought there was some way that (I) could make a difference.”