Faces of Energy: Atta Gueye, Plextronics
Atta Gueye was in high school taking courses at a community college a few years ago when, like many other young people planning their future, she was unsure of her next move. She was thinking about math, maybe physics. Then a male friend made a bet with her, that she couldn't cut it in the male-dominated world of electronics.
"I ended up doing his homework," says Gueye, who not only won a friendly bet, but has taken a path that she believes will lead to more accessible and efficient solar technology working for Pittsburgh-based Plextronics
Since November, 2008, Gueye is part of a team that develops, evaluates and optimizes processing conditions to maximize cells' efficiencies from new proprietary polymers developed in-house by Plextronics, which specializes in printed solar, lighting and other electronics. The company's conductive polymer inks can be used with traditional printing processes—enabling anyone who can print ink to also create lighting, power and circuitry.
But there's little traditional about Gueye and her journey to Plextronics. She was the lone female in the Electronics Engineering Technology program at Hudson County (NJ) Community College and one of only two females among 32 graduates from the New Mexico Institute (NMT) of Mining and TechnologyNO PLACE SHE'D RATHER BE
Gueye grew up four miles outside of Paris, France in the northwestern suburb of Levallois-Perret, one of the most densely populated municipalities in Europe, until she was 11. She then moved to another similarly crowded area in Hoboken, NJ, where she experienced all that metropolitan New York has to offer. But she's got everything she can ever imagine wanting right here in Pittsburgh.
"France doesn't have Plextronics," she says.
Gueye, whose work on dye-sensitized solar cells has been published in the Journal of American Ceramics and the Journal of Organic Chemistry, also got to meet one of her scientific heroes here, Award winning European physical organic chemistry professor Rene Janssen
. But it's the people she sees five days a week that keep her committed to Western PA.
"The people I work with are amazing," says Gueye, who got her job almost three months before graduating with a Master's in Materials Engineering from NMI. "They just embraced me and every day I learn so much. I'm never bored, especially when you see the passion in the eyes of the people you work with."THE EARLY CHRISTMAS GIFT
Gueye is part of the company's OPV
--or organic photovoltaic--team focused on devices. It deals with conductive organic polymers or small organic molecules for light absorption and charge transport and is at the heart of Plextronics' innovation. In December, she and her teammates discovered a formulation that resulted in the highest efficiency of OPV in company history.
At the company's holiday party later that month, Gueye's team was nominated for an award without the nominator or majority of the company knowing about the record efficiency. It was kept under wraps until the party, when co-workers were blown away by the exciting development.
"It was incredible," says Gueye. "I was proud to be a part of it."ADRENALINE JUNKIES
Whether it's the thrill of an open road or the rush from exhaustion after an intense workout, Gueye is an admitted thrill-seeker. She can usually be found cycling at Highland Park or Lorraine State Park at least once a week.
"I learned how to fall well," says Gueye. "I stuck to the parking lot until I got it right."
She also does spinning three times per week at the gym, where "it's like you're at work," because so many of her co-workers are also exercising there. But outdoors is where she'd rather be.
"The adrenaline, that's what I'm addicted to," she says. "It's a getaway, just me, my bike and the challenge. Whenever I get really tired, I just tell myself 'It's one more minute, you can do it.' It's all mental.
"It's the same thing working on efficiency. One of my co-workers always says it's not a sprint, but a marathon."COMING INTO HER OWN
Following a series of academic and professional successes, Gueye says she has learned to follow her instincts and be patient. That has come in handy as she has gone through an on-the-job crash course in chemistry, in which she hadn't been as proficient as physics.
Classes in time management and project management, among others, through Plex University--online professional development courses with Penn State University
--have also helped. And while the industry is still male dominated, half her team at Plextronics is made up of women. Besides, she's been too busy to think about it, or collecting on that bet that helped her find her place in the world.
"There's always excitement at work," Gueye says. "You might not think a piece of data is useful but you can always learn from it.
"I think we're going to change the world. We're taking free energy and trying to make it accessible and cheap for everybody."
Joe Petrucci is managing editor of Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.
Members of the Plextronics OPV-devices team include (front, left to right) Christine McGuiness, Elena Sheina, and Tina Xu; and (back row, left to right) Chris Brown, Atta Gueye, Sergey Li, and Chad Landis.