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Alumni Profile: Brian Rodriguez

Brian Rodriguez on a rare sunny day in Dublin with son, Matthias
Brian Rodriguez on a rare sunny day in Dublin with son, Matthias.

Brian received his doctorate in physics from North Carolina State University in December of 2003 under the supervision of Prof. Robert Nemanich (Physics, now at Arizona State University) and Prof. Angus Kingon (Materials Science and Engineering, now at Brown University). His dissertation was entitled “Nanoscale Investigation of the Piezoelectric Properties of Perovskite Ferroelectrics and III-Nitrides.” He is currently a Lecturer in Nanoscience at Ireland’s largest university, University College Dublin. The following is an interview with Brian about his experience as a graduate student in the NC State Physics Department, how he got there, and where he’s been since.

How did you end up pursuing your degree in physics at NC State
After receiving my BS in physics, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I hadn’t taken the GRE or applied to grad school. I stuck around my undergraduate physics department the summer after graduating tinkering about as a research assistant. One of my professors took me into his office and asked what I wanted to do, and we started talking about career options. He sent out some emails to other professors and industry contacts, and before I knew it, I had a couple of interviews at companies in the Research Triangle Park. During my interview with Kobe Steel USA Inc., Electronic Materials Center, I was asked about piezoelectricity. I hadn’t a clue what it was, but managed to land the job anyway. Later, I learned this was partially (jokingly?) due to the interests I listed on my resume: they played basketball during their lunch breaks… The experience at Kobe was great. It was an R&D lab, and it was here that I caught the bug for research. I decided I needed to develop the expertise and experience to have more input on the research directions and objectives, and knew that I wanted to go to graduate school to develop these skills. I had planned to continue working while I attended school (through a joint research project), and chose NC State’s Department of Physics because of the reputation, proximity, and close ties between Kobe and NC State. In the end, Kobe Steel was unable to keep the research office open, but I was still able to attend NC State.

How did you find a supervisor?
I started graduate school as a teaching assistant, which meant teaching physics labs to undergraduate students while also keeping up with my coursework and studying for the qualifier. During this time, I spoke to other PhD students about their projects and their advisors, and also consulted the webpages and recent publications of a number of professors to learn about their research interests. In the end, I contacted Prof. Nemanich, who offered me a project characterizing piezoelectric materials, and started research shortly thereafter.

What are your thoughts regarding joint supervision?
Clearly, there can be advantages and disadvantages, but for me, the advantages were the clear winner. You have twice as many people to bounce ideas off and to provide advice and guidance, and you have access to twice the network of industrial and academic contacts. In effect, I actually had three supervisors, as an expert in my research area (Prof. Alexei Gruverman, now at University of Nebraska) joined NC State during my PhD and was very helpful.

What was it like working in Prof Nemanich’s group?
There were a lot of really positive things about working in this group. We had a pretty large group, and there were big group meetings, and small group meetings based on our research areas, and plenty of social events. In addition to working on interesting scientific problems and gaining technical skills, you end up learning a lot about working together as a team and about research supervision and lab management along the way, all of which have been very useful in my current job. Students ran meetings, helped write grants, and gained teaching experience. I was able to attend one or two conferences a year to present my work, and even presented at an international conference. We had a lot of interactions with other groups at NC State in physics and materials science and engineering, which allowed you to see the bigger picture of your field and provided access to tools and expertise across the university. I particularly liked the collaborative environment that Prof. Nemanich fostered, and I try to implement the same in my lab.

Can you tell us more about your PhD thesis?
My main project was the nanoscale characterization and imaging of electromechanical coupling and electrical properties in polar materials such as III-Nitride (e.g., AlN, GaN) and ferroelectric (e.g., PZT) materials. My work in this area led to several firsts, including: opening the door to the imaging of a variety of piezoelectric materials by measuring the nanoscale electromechanical response of a non-ferroelectric for the first time; the direct observation of the movement of ferroelastic domain walls responsible for enhanced piezoresponse by the 3D reconstruction of the real space polarization vector in ferroelectric capacitors, which allowed both 90° and 180° switching in commercial devices to be visualized; and provided a general description of ambient domain growth by a scanning probe microscope tip through the measurement of tip-induced domain growth kinetics in lithium niobate. In addition, I measured the electronic band structure of lithium niobate and GaN by UV-photoelectron emission microscopy for the first time and related the results to scanning probe measurements. This work led to the idea that if the charge at the surface of these polar materials could be controlled, it could be exploited, which resulted in a successful NSF NIRT proposal.

What did you do after your PhD?
Once again, after my PhD, I found myself tinkering about in a Physics lab, but this time as a postdoc. One of the proposals I helped to write was funded, and so I stayed on and continued my research. I had also applied to other positions, and had given this a lot of thought. Your postdoc is an opportunity to take the skills you gained during your PhD and go out and gain some complementary skill set that makes you unique and employable, so you can convince a university to give you a nice start up package to start your own lab. At the same time, you have become the world’s expert in the narrow topic of your dissertation. Rather than start from scratch on something else, I thought it was my best opportunity to apply what I had spent 5 years studying. I wasn’t working on exactly the same things – the scope was broader and I was gaining new expertise and experience, but I didn’t have to start from scratch somewhere else. From NC State, I moved on to a very productive postdoc at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, which led to an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship to conduct research at the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics (Halle, Germany). I joined University College Dublin in January, 2009 as a Lecturer in Nanoscience at the Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research and the School of Physics.

What are you doing now?
I am a Lecturer at University College Dublin. As a Lecturer, I am a permanent staff member of the School of Physics – something like an Assistant Professor in the US, but with tenure. As such, I am a principal investigator and have received funding from Science Foundation Ireland and the European Commission. Currently, I am supervising 5 PhD students, and co-supervising several more in Ireland and other European countries. Recently I supervised a postdoctoral fellow for the first time. As a Lecturer, I spend roughly half of my time on research and half of my time teaching. I spend another half of my time (I was never very good at math) doing everything else – reviewing papers, organizing conferences, and performing administrative duties at the school and university levels. I have been teaching mostly small class size masters courses (Atomic Force Microscopy, Nanomechanics, Biomimicry) for a NanoBio MSc. These courses are discipline-led and have been quite enjoyable to teach. My group’s research is focused on functional biological materials and advanced scanning probe microscopy-based characterization techniques of biological materials, i.e., ‘nanobio’ physics. In particular, we develop and employ techniques to measure electrostatic interactions and electromechanical coupling in biosystems at the molecular level. Our current emphasis is towards an understanding of biological structure and function, and to explore physical interactions between biosystems and materials properties and structure, through the use of charged probes and charge-patterned templates.