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Sun and Solar Panels Shine at 40th Research Expo

Jacobs School Dean Albert P. Pisano hands Ph.D. student Tala Sidawi her Best Poster Award at Research Expo 2022. It was the event's 40th anniversary.


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Nanoengineering master’s student Tala Sidawi had her time in the sun at the 2022 edition of Research Expo. Sidawi took home the grand prize for her work to model how solar panels “breathe” water in real time. Such a model could help researchers design solar panels that last longer and perform better in humid environments, and also cost less to build.

“My goal was to emphasize a big problem that the solar panel industry is experiencing and how my research can provide a solution,” said Sidawi. “I had a great time presenting and seeing people understand and ask thoughtful questions about my research, some of which sparked ideas for future work. Winning the grand prize was surreal and a confidence booster for my communication skills—and it validated all the effort I’ve put into my work. Now I’m more excited than ever to enter industry, especially since communication in R&D is such a sought-after skill.”

For the 40th anniversary of Research Expo, the sun showed up for everyone, as more than 100 students set up their posters in the engineering courtyard, around the giant bear statue made out of rocks that is part of the Stuart Collection here on campus. The Expo was held outside for the first time in the event’s history and the weather obligingly cooperated, as Jacobs School Dean Albert P. Pisano pointed out. Research Expo helps students acquire key skills, Dean Pisano added. 

“It’s crucial that you take time to understand your research in the larger context of your field,” he said. “And it’s crucial to have the skill to explain your work and its context to someone far outside of your field. That is how you will be successful in the world.”

This year, in addition to a $750 cash prize, all department winners received a $1000 gift certificate to UC San Diego Extension classes. 

Also new this year, participants could vote for a “people’s choice” winning poster. Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate April Aralar, from the research group of associate professor Stephanie Fraley, won the award for her poster titled “Toward an improved method for neonatal sepsis diagnosis.” 

Best poster winner

Sidawi, who is a researcher in the lab of UC San Diego nanoengineering professor David Fenning, received the Lea Rudee Outstanding Poster Award, which came with a $1500 cash prize, as well as the Best Poster Award for the Department of NanoEngineering.

Her research aims to address a problem with solar panels—their performance and longevity suffer when they are exposed to moisture. Water entering a solar panel and staying inside can cause different types of damage such as corrosion, yellowing, and weakening of adhesive bonds between materials inside the panel. 

By modeling the behavior of water in solar panels, Sidawi is helping lay the groundwork for researchers to design and build solar panels that can better withstand or repel moisture.

“The idea is that we can use these simulations to predict optimal designs for solar panels in different moisture conditions,” said Sidawi. “Researchers in academia and industry could potentially plug into this simulation and figure out the best combination of materials and the best architecture for their solar panels.”

To create her model, Sidawi first took a prototype solar panel and subjected it to thousands of hours of high temperature and humidity. These experiments were meant to simulate the degradation the solar panel would experience over 20 years. She then used noninvasive infrared imaging techniques developed in Fenning’s lab to analyze the water inside the solar panel. She used this information and coupled it with a year’s worth of weather data collected from various cities, including San Diego, Phoenix and Miami, to model the behavior and movement of water in the solar panel throughout the year.

“To expand the reach of solar power and lower its cost, we need to be able to optimize solar panels for their location,” said Sidawi. A solar panel built for Phoenix, for example, won’t necessarily work in Miami, she explained. “Although both locations get a lot of sun, the solar panels will be exposed to different levels of humidity, and thus, experience different reactions to water and experience different types of degradation.”

Sidawi hopes that her work can help improve the reliability, performance and cost of solar power in more cities.

“With the work that we’ve done here, maybe we’ll be able to make solar panels that last just as long in Miami as they do in Phoenix,” she said.


Extension is one of the event’s key sponsors this year, along with ASML, Viasat, and Qualcomm. 

“We are here because these students’ creativity, innovation and energy gives us the inspiration to go back to our work and think about the problems we are tackling in a new way,” said Nikolai Devereaux, ViaSat engineering director, who earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master of advanced studies at the Jacobs School. 

All winning posters

The student winners’ short video presentations are linked below.

Overall winner:

Moisture ingress and distribution in bifacial silicon photovoltaics

Student: Tala Sidawi

Faculty: David Fenning, Associate Professor 


Department Winners:


Bioengineering–Shu and K.C. Chien Best Poster:

Toward a genetic therapy for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy by RNA end-joining
Student Ryan Hsu, faculty: Sam Pfaff, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and UC San Diego bioengineering affiliate


Computer Science and Engineering

IC Obfuscation through sequential history to combat reverse engineering and fault injection attacks

Student: Leon Li, Faculty: Alex Orailoglu, Professor


Electrical and Computer Engineering:

A 0.66 W/MM2 power density, 92.4% peak efficiency hybrid converter with nH-scale inductors for 12V system

Student: Tianshi Xie, Faculty: Hanh-Phuc Le, Assistant Professor


Katie Osterday Best Poster in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Microscale Concert Hall Acoustics for Sonogenetics

Student: Aditya Vasan, Faculty: James Friend, Professor



Moisture ingress and distribution in bifacial silicon photovoltaics

Student: Tala Sidawi, Faculty: David Fenning, Associate Professor 


Structural Engineering

Seismic response of rail embankments
Student: Alex Yarahuaman Chamorro, Faculty: John McCartney, Professor

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