Representing stellar teacher-scholar achievement and potential, five junior faculty members were awarded with the Faculty Early Career Development Program by the National Science Foundation. Itai Cohen, William Dichtel, Tobias Hanrath, Eun-Ah Kim and Cynthia Reinhart-King received the honor for their exemplary research, teaching skills, and leadership abilities. These faculty members are committed not only to their academic work, but to mentoring students and fostering scholarship.
Prof. Itai Cohen, physics, studies crystallization using a model system of micron-sized particles that are suspended in water. Cohen and his team can tune the attraction between particles, and fabricate the surface on which they are crystallizing, which allows for greater observation than the atomic system allows.
The particles are the size of a micron, or 1/50 the size of a hair’s diameter, making them easy to see under the microscope. They are much slower than atoms, which makes it possible to see them hop from one position to another on the lower surface. Cohen has mastered the basic building blocks and overcome the corresponding hurdles, and he is now trying to put the components together into a research trajectory.
“The potential for the research was already shown in a previous scientific paper we wrote, and it’s based on those results … that we were going to be able to do the research that’s coming,” Cohen said, explaining why he thinks he won the award.
Cohen has participated in the Light in Winter Festival, an annual science and art celebration in Ithaca, where he performed a dance piece about physics in dance. He hopes to work with the theatre department this year to continue communicating science.
Prof. William Dichtel, chemistry and chemical biology, works to make organic solar cells thinner, more flexible and less expensive while maintaining high performance. “The potential of these materials is vast and untapped,” he said, noting that applications are still speculative and photovoltaics are a relatively new field. “With so little known about these materials, we could change our minds very quickly.” Dichtel has started at square one, studying new materials and going back to the beginning to learn how materials are designed and how they bond.
As part of his educational initiative, Dichtel hopes to give the general population an understanding of and appreciation for organic chemistry. His course, Chemistry 3580: Organic Chemistry for the Life Sciences, draws connections between everyday life and chemistry in food, personal care, clothing and technology. The second aspect of his initiative is to broaden science education in middle schools and high schools by highlighting solar energy.
Prof. Tobias Hanrath, chemical and biomolecular engineering, builds artificial solids for use in solar cells. He takes several individual particles (artificial atoms) and puts them together to create artificial solids. This allows new elements to be put together like building blocks in which the sum is greater than its parts. Hanrath and his team can synthetically control the size of the atom and the particles, their distance from each other and their arrangement which cannot be controlled in a classic solid. Structure-property relationships are still unknown. “We know we can make different structures, but we haven’t yet correlated how one structure behaves differently from another in terms of optical properties, or electrical properties, or magnetic properties.”
The team wants to improve connectivity between particles, which has been the biggest fundamental challenge. “From an applied perspective, the big challenge is how do you do this … in a cost-and-scale competitive way, such that it’s no longer a pipe dream to actually talk about these in solar cells.”
Hanrath is focusing his educational efforts on building a new sustainable research facility on campus to showcase research, branching off the work of the University’s Solar Decathalon Team. As a faculty advisor on the project, he will help decide energy options for the building. Hanrath’s second outreach component involves interfacing with the University’s Institute for Chemistry and Physics Teachers, where high school teachers come to Ithaca for a seminar on new topics in chemistry and physics.
Prof. Eun-Ah Kim, physics, works with quantum liquid crystals, the interplay between their multiple competing phases, and their super conductive characteristics.
“Among these three phases, electrons collectively behaving like quantum liquid crystal is something that is relatively new and is not well understood.”
Learning how these phenomena might be interconnected is a growing area of interest. There is also a longstanding question of the mechanisms behind high temperature superconductivity.
Although there are efforts to use superconductors for power grids, superconductors exist at extremely low temperatures requiring expensive coolants. Kim is trying to understand “what kind of conditions make a material behave as a quantum liquid crystal rather than a superconductor, or behave as a super conductor rather than a quantum liquid crystal,” which would have great implications for energy sources and power grids.
Kim notes that her research is “kind of like studying the sociology of electrons.” Electrons, as a collection, “exhibit different phases or collective behavior that is emerging from how they interact with each other, that can never be understood by just thinking about a single electron.” Kim compared studying the phases to studying a whole new universe. “there is a great deal of satisfaction in feeling that I was able to understand something that is like a universe.”
Kim wants to encourage girls to find their passion in math and science, working with the University’s chapter of the Expand Your Horizons to create an environment and a cyber community for girls to express their interest in math and science. She is also creating a liquid crystal kit for K-12 students and is working on a required science writing course for graduate students in physics.
Cynthia Reinhart-King, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, focuses on endothelial cell chemotaxis and cellular migration. According to the NSF website, the award will fund the study of the basic mechanisms behind chemotaxis, with implications for tissue engineering and the potential to engineer vascular networks. Her work could help cancer research, through a greater understanding of angiogenisis which could provide insight into the endothelial cell chemotactic response. Reinhart-King was unvailable to comment.