Larkin studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at MIT and graduated in 2017. She focused on machining and manufacturing and was an apprentice in the Pappalardo Lab. After MIT she completed an MPhil in Energy Technologies and a PhD in material sciences from the University of Cambridge in 2022. Her doctoral work in Professor Louise Hirst’s group focused on developing ultra-thin single-junction GaAs solar cells with enhanced radiation tolerance for space power applications. The project involved designing, fabricating and testing some of the thinnest solar cells ever made.

Larkin now lives in DC and works at the U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) as a fellow. The office supports solar energy research and development with a range of projects in areas such as photovoltaics, systems integration and soft costs. She is passionate about renewable energy and fighting climate change.

Did your sense of your post-graduate school goals/plans change from the beginning to the end of your graduate work? What are your longer term career goals?

As I was starting my PhD I didn’t have clear plans for after I finished it. I pursued the degree since I wanted to become an expert in photovoltaics and I loved my research group. It was a wonderful 4 years getting to devote my time to building solar cells in the lab and collaborating with incredible researchers and mentors. Not everyone has a positive PhD experience so I feel very lucky! In the last two years of the PhD I started to consider moving back to the U.S. to be closer to family and with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and especially the Inflation Reduction Act I was heartened to see significant funding on climate coming from the Biden administration. Working at the Department of Energy pretty quickly became my goal to help get the most out of the new funding and ensure it’s used as quickly and effectively as possible. It was a natural fit to apply to the Solar Energy Technologies Office based on my expertise and I’m so glad I did! My long-term goals are to continue supporting solar deployment and grid integration. I don’t know exactly where I will land after my current fellowship ends but I know it will be within solar energy broadly.

How did you find your first position after finishing your graduate work? If that position is different from what you do now, how did you find your current position?

I’m a big email newsletter person and I subscribe to a huge range of them to keep up to date on technology and current events. One such newsletter is the Solar Energy Technologies Office bi-weekly and they often advertise about their fellowship program. The fellowship is a great fit for me since they are actively looking for people with solar expertise coming out of school who are ready to dive into the running of office research programs. It’s been a huge learning curve for me going from researching one very niche type of solar cell to then working on dozens of different projects and topics. I work on the photovoltaics team and we fund research on established photovoltaic materials such as silicon and cadmium telluride but also earlier stage research on emerging materials such as perovskites. No two days are the same and I love that there is always more to learn.

What sources of mentorship/advice did you rely on during or after your graduate work to assist you in your career so far? 

Since I was my supervisor’s first PhD student, I had a lot of individual attention from her in my first year as I learned to make solar cells in the cleanroom. However, a lot of the time I did have to be quite independent since there were no other students or post-docs in my group who could advise me on the solar cells we were trying to develop. A lot of it was me designing and troubleshooting totally new fabrication processes. Since my project involved so much time working in the lab, I got to know the students and post-docs from other groups that used the same machines and, along with the incredible cleanroom technicians, they helped me learn and build up my skills and intuition. It was gratifying in my final two years to be able to pass along some of the processes that I developed to younger students who were just starting out. My research group expanded a lot over the course of my four years as a PhD student and I feel really proud to have been part of that creation!

What soft skills did you develop in graduate school that have served you so far in your career? 

I quickly realized the value of being a good collaborator in helping your own research goals. If you are willing to help and teach others then they are way more likely to get invested in your project and want to help you out. It’s also way more fun with friends! I also invested a lot of time in honing my science communication skills. Boiling down a complicated technology into digestible bites that any audience can understand is a skill that has helped me massively in my current position. 

Do you have any advice for current graduate students who want to pursue a career outside of academia or more traditional industry paths? 

I recommend being extremely thorough in your search! If there’s a cool thing you see in the news, spend a little bit of time reading about the people working on it. I would have never imagined myself working at a government agency but that’s essentially how I got to where I am now. Talk to a range of people from all walks of life who are passionate about what they do! There are so many ways you can use the skills you gained in grad school to help people, so have fun with it. Shameless plug to consider climate and environmental careers! WE NEED YOU.