Meet Prince Ochonma

Smith School Ph.D. student Prince Ochonma
  • Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria
  • CBE

Prince Ochonma has seen first-hand some of the possible societal and environmental challenges of oil extraction. Ochonma grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and says that the environmental degradation he witnessed led directly to his interest in developing sustainable and alternative energy solutions. “I knew that it was up to me, and really to any other Nigerian  that cared, to find a way to meet Nigeria’s energy needs in an efficient and environmentally-friendly way,” says Ochonma.

Ochonma came to this realization when he was nearing the end of his secondary school education. “This is what led me to study chemical engineering as an undergraduate,” says Ochonma. “At that time it looked to me like the field that was most directly related to the energy industry.”

Ochonma went to the University of Lagos where he earned a B.S. in chemical engineering. His original plan was to get his degree and then find a job in industry. But then as an undergraduate he had the opportunity to participate in research and says that changed everything. “I fell in love with the research process,” says Ochonma. The specific project he worked on involved a close examination of the process some Nigerians use to make shear butter, (also known as shea butter.)

But its effect on Ochonma was deeper. “You might be thinking this is very different from sustainable energy,” Ochonma says with a chuckle, “but it was the project that was available to me at the time. And it showed me how much I enjoyed looking at process parameters and altering those to see the effects on production. It also gave me a taste of what it feels like to help people through my work.”

Nigerians who graduate from a university are required to become part of the National Youth Service Corps program for one year after they graduate. It is known as the national service year and Ochonma says “I got lucky. I got posted to Babcock University, and had the opportunity to work as a graduate research assistant for a professor there. That experience solidified my interest in research.”

Ochonma decided that whatever and wherever he studied, he wanted to be able to take a broad approach. “I knew that I wanted to study sustainable energy production, but I also knew that I wanted to be able to include economic considerations in my work,” says Ochonma. Before embarking on a graduate program, he worked for the worldwide professional services firm KPMG as an analyst in the Energy and Natural Resources Department for a year. “That year helped me to better understand the rationale behind decisions made by diverse energy firms in Nigeria and it will allow me to incorporate this approach to research problems I tackle as a graduate student and beyond.”

Ochonma had a list of criteria for any grad school he would consider. He wanted lessons to be in English, he wanted a highly-rated school that was strong in sustainable energy research, and he wanted what he calls “a comfortable environment.” It was a tough decision to leave my country,” says Ochonma, “but it’s a journey I had to embark on if I want to improve myself and reach my goal.”

Cornell fit all of Ochonma’s criteria and he came to Ithaca in the summer of 2019 to start his Ph.D. studies in the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering CBE). “All of the schools I was accepted to were good schools with strong programs,” says Ochonma, “but Cornell just felt so welcoming and I think that was the critical factor in my decision. That was very important to me.”

Even though he is in the Smith School, Ochonma’s primary advisor is Greeshma Gadikota, assistant professor and Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell. Gadikota directs the Sustainable Energy and Resource Recovery Group and is a perfect fit for Ochonma’s research interests. “I am investigating hydrogen production from biomass with in-situ CO2 removal,” says Ochonma. “I am focusing on creating a low-temperature, wet biomass process that can produce hydrogen from a wide range of solid and aqueous biomass resources including food waste.”

At this point, still several years away from completing his Ph.D. studies, Ochonma is not exactly sure of what his next career step will be. “It is difficult to say exactly what I want to do when I graduate,” says Ochonma, “but I do know that I aspire to devote my life to research, either in academia or in an R-and-D position in industry. Hopefully, I will get to commercialize whatever technologies I create in the lab so that it can reach broader society and significantly improve the world’s environmental situation.”

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