February 2023 Graduate Student Spotlight: Patrick Cunningham

Graduate student Patrick Cunningham

Patrick Cunningham (he/him) has been studying at UC Davis for 5 years, first completing his MS degree and now completing his Ph.D. 

In this month's Graduate Student Spotlight, we'll learn more about Patrick and his research at UC Davis.

Tell us about yourself in a few words.

Currently, I'm doing research in Berlin, DE. I love cooking and I am fascinated by the towering role of concrete in our global society.

What is your research about and why is it important?

My research is about making more sustainable cement and concrete. Currently, they account for nearly 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and impacts will continue to increase as more regions grow, develop, and consume concrete. To mitigate the impacts of climate change it is imperative that we have more sustainable construction materials (of which concrete is the most used by far). Our society won't function without concrete production, so we need to learn to make it more sustainable if we are to mitigate climate change.

Why did you choose UC Davis to pursue your degree?

I was fascinated by the research area and knew Davis had strong sustainability research capabilities and course offerings. Further, I connected well with the faculty and staff in the department and especially with my advisor. These connections have really made Davis CEE a great place to study and do research over the last four years.

How would you describe your graduate life journey so far?

Graduate life has been a lot of work but, also full of growth! It is really what you make of it and about the opportunities you find. In my first year alone, I wrote more than in my whole undergrad. Over the last four years, I've worked on exciting projects and been able to pursue my own ideas and interests with the support of my advisor. While full of challenges, I look back at where I started and I see so much growth! This year, I've been able to meet and work with researchers internationally (whose papers I've always read with admiration), on projects that could really make a difference in the world. I'm excited about what the future has in store!
I feel really fortunate for the support of my advisor, the opportunities I've found at CEE, and my great lab group.

What has been your favorite part of graduate school?

I get really excited when research works {though not always as you expect). When you measure something or observe phenomena that you can then start to connect with the other dots (with other things you've found before or other literature) it is really exciting! It makes me feel like I've connected another piece of the puzzle that will drive us toward more sustainable societies.
(I also love my lab group!)

What do you think is the greatest challenge that graduate students face and how have you been able to address it?

I think self-doubt is pervasive in graduate education and I have definitely felt this. I've addressed this in a few ways. One is speaking with professors, being open about my weaknesses, and asking questions about things I'm unsure of. Of course, it helps me learn more and grow, but it's also an act of acknowledging where I am and has made me more comfortable seeking help without worrying I will look dumb. The other is putting myself out there for opportunities (like seeking out fellowships, submitting articles to certain journals, or applying to committees) even if I doubt myself. I've learned to ignore the voice that says I won't get it and try anyways. It is hard to do. However, it has helped me build confidence in my ability and given me opportunities I didn't think I could have. (Having a hobby helps too).

What is your plan after graduation?

Reducing the impact of humans on the environment, and the associated impacts on society is very meaningful to me. I would love an opportunity to continue research in the field of sustainable materials to support these goals.

What advice do you have for current and prospective CEE graduate students?

Be open-minded, ask questions, and actively engage with faculty and other graduate students. You'll learn so much from others and their experiences. Build a social network outside of your professional field too so you can have a break every now and then.

How do you unwind after work?

I read spy novels, ride my bike in the south campus (near Putah Creek), play water polo, or cook fun meals.

What is your favorite destination for vacation?

I like oceans and forests - so the Pacific Grove, Bodega Bay, or Santa Cruz areas of CA are always lovely (and close enough for a day/weekend trip).


Patrick is currently a Fulbright Grantee in Berlin with the German-American Fulbright Commission. These thoughts are his own.

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