February 16, 2010

The Scientists: Jiwoong Park and Derek Warner

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People may appreciate the Golden Globes, Grammys and Oscars, but few outside the research world may pay attention when scientists receive awards.

This past January, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for work with the Department of Defense to Prof. Jiwoong Park, chemistry, and Prof. Derek Warner, civil and environmental engineering, along with 100 other early career scientists. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the branch of the Executive Office of the President that coordinates these awards, considers this the highest honor for an early-career scientist.

Park, a physicist, tries to synthesize and characterize nano-scale materials. He works with very difficult, small structures to understand the limit of this nanoscale material, controlling structures and resolving their properties.

The creation of these materials demands accuracy, which is limited.

Park’s group does not possess the right synthetic approach or the correct tools to look at these materials, so they must create them themselves. Park’s background in physics makes him able to approach these demands. Park’s group uses many tools, including optical spectroscopes, but also makes a number of devices.

At the extremely small scale, Park looks at the unique properties of conducting materials. For example, carbon nanotubes are a few nanometers thick and conduct electricity as well as gold. Carbon nanotubes operate like AM, FM and TV antennas, which receive and propagate electromagnetic waves in certain frequencies. “You can propagate and control light in a very similar fashion as you do in everyday life,” Park said.

Ultimately, the control and understanding of the material makes this possible. Park’s group tries to find a new way to characterize these materials.

This field of nanomaterials expands the world of nanoelectronics, nanophotonics and nanosensoring. Park feels like his efforts through the Department of Defense has provided his work with great recognition.

“It’s great…but at the same time I believe in the fact that science is an incremental process, it’s not done by a single person. I really am happy I got this award, but there are a lot of people that contributed to what we achieved,” noting his eight graduate students, his postdoctoral student and his colleagues.

Warner’s research lies in the origin of failure and the underlying mechanisms, “with the hope that if you understand the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ then you can engineer something much better than what we have now.”

At the atomic scale, engineers are limited in space and time, as measurements are usually in nanometers, picoseconds and nanoseconds. These dimensions are detached from visible scales, making predictions disconnected from reality. Warner attempts to circumvent this challenge, and his research aims to predict mechanical response without constitutive law, or without empirical input.

With physical laws, engineers must account for material coefficients. The question is, can you predict a mechanical response by looking at protons?

These questions apply to materials of design and nanotechnology. By understanding the material science of objects, scientist can improve their properties.

Funded by the navy, Warner’s work improves maintenance cycles on ships. Cracks occur due to loading factors and the environment, but Warner can help identify the loading conditions and the likeliness of a structure failing. This helps establish inspection requirements and lower maintenance costs.

“It made me feel like I better do a good job now,” he said. “Everybody here works incredibly hard, so it’s good when positive things happen because it re-energizes people.”

Warner always wanted to be an engineer, invariably asking “Why does that happen?” or “Why do we assume this?” In his line of engineering, discoveries come by surprise. “Really you’re excited if you find anything that changes,” Warner said. “I have a motivation to understand how the world works…and then improve it based off of what we learn.”

Original Author: Erin Szulman