Physics professors Nicholas Kioussis, Donna Sheng and Gang Lu have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue research in nanotechnology. According to Kioussis and Sheng, the grant was awarded during the summer for their ongoing research and will be used to fund further research conducted by minority students under the guidance of Princeton professors, as well as create other opportunities for the physics and astronomy department.
Kioussis’ award-winning research involved three different components: studying the mechanical properties of materials, strongly correlated electron systems and spintronics. Sheng focused her research on the area of spintronics. Although her research took several different directions, she explained that spintronics is basically a way to manipulate electrons. All areas of their research are integral to the science of nanotechnology.
Kioussis described nanotechnology as the study of very small materials. He said that through nanotechnology, physicists can produce materials with very small length scales. To give an idea of how small these materials are, Kioussis defined a nanometer as one billionth of a meter, or 10 to the negative ninth power. Materials this small can only be seen with special scanning or tunneling microscopes, which allow scientists to examine the distances between atoms.
It may sound very hefty, but there are practical uses for such technological research. Kioussis said nanotechnology is used in fields such as physics, chemistry, material science, mechanical engineering and computer science.
Using powerful computers, a scientist can predict the properties of materials, conduct actual experiments with the computers and calculate the different optical and mechanical properties of materials. Kioussis said the W.M. Keck Laboratory, located in the physics and astronomy department, has such a computer with 80 different processors. Kioussis noted that the use of a computer this powerful allows the department to keep costs down, because it eliminates the use of long-winded methods that require more tools to conduct their research.
“This is an inexpensive way of looking at materials. It complements material science, because it allows a scientist to understand the underlying elements for observable behavior. It allows scientists to answer many questions, like ‘Why is a material strong?’ It allows scientists to understand on an atomic or nano scale what properties of atoms are responsible for what behavior?It’s quite remarkable,” Kioussis said. He added that once physicists understand that key component, they can “tailor produce” materials because they understand their mechanical properties.
Keeping costs down is a major effort in the department. Kioussis said the faculty understand that being part of the CSU system means funds are very limited. He also said the department understands many of their students work an average of 20 to 25 hours a week to fund their college education and pay for living expenses.
“(Grants) relieve the pressure and provide the necessary opportunities to learn,” Kioussis said.
This is not the first grant the department has received. However, what is special about this grant is that it is the first to fund and encourage a partnership between CSUN and Princeton University. Sheng clarified that CSUN’s physics and astronomy department has a history of collaborating with Princeton for research projects and in producing publications. This grant, however, links CSUN students with faculty from Princeton. Both Kioussis and Sheng agree that such a partnership will do wonders for the morale of the department and the students, as well as strengthen CSUN’s reputation and provide opportunities for the students’ futures.
“This will stimulate things. We want to create an enthusiastic environment where students are excited about research,” Kioussis said.
Sheng said the grant may help cover travel and lodging expenses for guest speakers from Princeton, but both professors said a key part of this grant is that it funds a six- to eight-week summer program, during which students spend their time working with Princeton faculty.
Sheng said that all research goals are the same: “The emphasis is on education.” However, research conducted between Princeton faculty and CSUN students have special connotations. “We want the students to further their studies in a good school and Princeton is among the best schools (in the country),” she said.
Ana Cristina Cadavid, chair of the physics and astronomy department, said, “This is an incredible opportunity for students to gain experience in the theoretical aspects of science as well as the technical aspects.” She said the research conducted will open doors for students by offering career opportunities and opening doors to Ph.D. programs. “This connection immediately gives them that extra credential, because of the prestige of Princeton.”
Both Kioussis and Sheng stress that a willingness to commit and be dedicated are what they look for when choosing students to attend the summer program, more so than holding a spot at the top of the class.
Kioussis said CSUN’s physics department is very intense. He said the curriculum prepared by the faculty prepare the students for opportunities such as these.
“The students will be using the three areas of research (mentioned earlier) and they will be learning the basic tools of quantum mechanics (at Princeton); so we try to build them and teach them through various means?” Kioussis added that students are required to make weekly presentations. He said this allows them to improve their analytical and critical thinking skills and gives them the prowess to write great reports, noting that publications are a major component of conducting research.
“We provide hands-on research for students at earlier stages in their career,” Kioussis said.
“The research is not new, but what is new is the very structured parts,” Cadavid said. She said a set of four classes will be implemented to teach the students the proper methods of conducting research at a higher caliber, level to that of Princeton. Two classes have been developed by Kioussis, Sheng and Lu, and two classes are in development.
“We’re all excited. This is a great opportunity and we’re all looking forward to working very hard,” Kioussis said.
Cadavid said physics is one of the more obscure avenues of science. “I believe this starts in high school,” she said, adding that traditionally, high school students, especially underrepresented students, are not geared toward the sciences, and if they do choose that route it is usually via biology. “There are many more underrepresented students in biology. Students see that there are more career opportunities in biology (such as those in the biomedical or pharmacy fields), so they can visualize it much more readily. It is a big challenge to be able to recruit in this category.”