InSPIRE-ing Across Generations

Kevin Berliner

Kevin Berliner. Photo by Laura Ress Design

Alumnus Kevin Berliner (2012 biological sciences) first met LAS Distinguished Professor Sivalingam Sivananthan (PhD, ’88) in his Physics 108 class. “It was my senior year and I was set on going to medical school,” Berliner said. “Everyone in my family is in the business world and I wanted something different. I was going to be the first doctor. I had done research projects in anatomy with Andrew Carney and organic chemistry with Professor Tom Driver and I volunteered with the Chief Medical Officer at Rush University Medical Center. I studied economics and nutrition and was finishing up my minor in physics. In my mind, there was no question of what was next.”

Then Berliner encountered the force that is “Dr. Siva,” professor in the Department of Physics, director of the UIC Microphysics Lab, and principal in six research and development corporations including Sivananthan Laboratories, Inc., EPIR Technologies, Inc., Episolar, Inc., and Episensors.

“Siva is quite unique among scientists at public universities—a researcher at the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said LAS Senior Executive Associate Dean Dibyen Majumdar. “He has created successful companies that develop and produce cutting-edge products and contribute to industry and the economy.”

Siva Sivananthan

Siva Sivananthan. Photo by Matthew Kaplan

“Dr. Siva convinced me to take a gap year before med school to work for him,” said Berliner. “It was a big decision but I decided to do it. I started the first week of June 2012 doing bench-top research for Episensors and also working with Sivananthan Labs in the biosensors division.

“Sivananthan Labs incubates small companies,” he explained. “EPIR was their first success story; they make the material for the night vision technology that is now so critical to the U.S. Department of Defense.

“I started at an opportune time; Dr. Siva was just beginning a new venture, InSPIRE—the Institute for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training. I started out as program coordinator, worked my butt off during any free time I had available, and after about six months I proved myself enough to be bumped up to executive director.”

InSPIRE trainees with certificates

Greencorps students with their solar projects.

InSPIRE promotes research and development and education and workforce training within the solar and renewable energy industry. The organization was founded by Sivananthan Laboratories, Inc. in 2012, because, Berliner explained, “Dr. Siva has transitioned into a philanthropic phase in his life and really wants to give back to the underserved communities surrounding UIC. He also saw a significant need to train people for the alternative energy industry.” InSPIRE, which received its 501(c)3 not-for-profit status in March, serves these goals.

“Once upon a time, the area where UIC now sits was an underserved neighborhood and I very much want to dispel questions about people from underserved communities having the ability to achieve their full potential,” said Sivananthan. “There is a critical need for STEM education and it is our responsibility to provide this opportunity to the communities near UIC. Education in the area of solar energy provides students with hands-on learning opportunities and presents them with a variety of options as they move forward into the workforce or higher education.” 

At the core of InSPIRE’s outreach and training activities are student organizations at several Illinois institutions including UIC InSPIRE, as well as chapters at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. “The ‘parent’ organization of InSPIRE has no governing power whatsoever,” said Berliner. “We align with the missions of the student organizations and support them in their work so that they can succeed.”

Brian Stafford

Brian Stafford. Photo by Micki Leventhal

As an undergraduate, Brian Stafford (2013 physics) was one of the founding members of UIC InSPIRE. “InSPIRE started for me, like many of my tasks from Dr. Siva, when he called me in for a chat,” said Stafford. “He announced that he was starting a not-for-profit and wanted me to start a student chapter.

“Eric Colegrove (PhD, 2013 physics), Daemaris Kroeber, and I gathered some physics and engineering students, went to Giordano’s armed with some basic information, designed the organization over pizza and pop, and started recruiting members and planning events.” Stafford is now a PhD student under the direction of Sivananthan and serves as president of UIC InSPIRE.

Students at DIY solar workshop.

DIY solar workshop.

In April 2013, UIC InSPIRE members conducted their first DIY solar cell workshop for fellow students and residents in the community surrounding the campus. The DIY solar workshop has since become a cornerstone presentation shared with groups and individuals ranging from the Benito Juarez Middle School Robotics Team to visiting researchers and dignitaries.

UIC InSPIRE also offers a Saturday program in partnership with the UIC Student Veteran’s Association and other student leaders such as Kenneth Adams, a 10-year Army medic. The Vets’ program focuses on professional development and furthering Vets’ interest in the clean energy and solar industries.

To date, InSPIRE has worked with two primary partners in the Chicago area delivering education and training in alternative energy: Greencorps Chicago, a green-industry job training program of the City of Chicago, and Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), an independent not-for-profit educational and employment service for veterans. LNVB now oversees the entire Greencorps program for the city and InSPIRE members work with them to train Chicago high school students in mathematics, electricity, principles of solar power, and trade skills such as soldering. The group’s Solar Cell Phone Charger Kit, originally introduced to UIC InSPIRE by member and physics student Stuart Parkhurst, is a key tool in solar education and training.

High school students and Congressman

Benito Juarez students with Congressman Mike Quigley.

InSPIRE volunteers also work directly with public and charter schools. InSPIRE partnered with Project Infinite Green to provide training to high school students in Joliet and Lemont. At the Academy for Global Citizenship on Chicago’s Southwest side, the Joliet and Lemont high school students then taught sixth graders basic scientific concepts and instructed them as they built their own solar USB charging stations alongside InSPIRE members. 

InSPIRE events have been attended by Illinois Congressmen Dan Lipinski, Bill Foster, and Mike Quigley as well as Chicago Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, the Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S., and the Moroccan Consul General. Governor Pat Quinn was in attendance when they kicked off the organization in 2012.

Now that InSPIRE has received not-for-profit status, they are ready for the next level of growth and are developing funding sources so that the organization can increase its reach globally and further understanding, innovation, education, and entrepreneurship in the alternative energy industry. “The hope is that we will serve as a middle-man to pair up and provide funds for academic research in the field,” said Berliner. “Part of the agreement includes engagement with students in the university as well as the schools and communities surrounding the research institutions.”

Currently, everyone involved with InSPIRE, including Executive Director Berliner, donates their time—which is one reason why Berliner continues his full-time job at Episensors and Sivananthan Laboratories. “A lot is going to be put in place in the near future,” he said. “If we are going to bring money in, we need a viable infrastructure.

“The mission of InSPIRE and this job has become a part of me and I will always be involved in some capacity. My future might include med school, which might pair with an MBA and make a good fit for a career in hospital administration. But whatever I do, I want to be involved in a way that will help people, and the work of InSPIRE undoubtedly serves that purpose.”