“Most of our materials appeared here for the first time. I don’t remember any time when we followed in the direction of what somebody else made first.”
With these words, physics graduate student Oleksandr Korneta perfectly captures the importance of the groundbreaking work being done at UK’s Center for Advanced Materials (CAM).
Korneta, who will defend his dissertation in the summer of 2011, has been a part of CAM since its inception, but his journey to UK’s Physics Department began more than 10 years ago in his native Ukraine.
Korneta says that his interest in science came naturally because of his home environment. “It was easy for me because both my parents have a technical education and I’ve been surrounded by all kinds of hardware my entire life,” Korneta said.
Although he started his academic career in engineering – saying that he wanted to be able to work on “something you can touch with your hands” – Korneta eventually shifted his studies to physics.
“In engineering you use a lot of empirical formulas, and being empirical means that they came from trial and error. I realized that there should be something that described in detail why things work the way they do, and that’s what physics does.”
But after earning degrees specializing in instrument design and solid-state physics, Korneta felt compelled to leave his homeland to fulfill his scientific goals. “I saw the state of scientific research in the Ukraine and how it was funded and I felt that I wanted to do more, so I started working on applying to schools abroad,” he said.
Korneta heard about the University of Kentucky from a former colleague at the Scientific Research Institute in Ukraine. “He became a faculty member at UK, and he told me about the school and that he was looking for students,” Korneta explained.
“I also did my research and found that there are quite a few people here making good advancements. That motivated my decision a lot.”
When his first professor eventually departed from UK, Korneta was given the chance to join the lab that was the foundation for what would become the Center for Advanced Materials. He seized the opportunity, and has been working with Gang Cao – the director of CAM – ever since.
Korneta’s field of study for his dissertation deals with the phenomena of strong electron-correlation and spin-orbit interaction in specific transition metal oxides. These terms are used to describe and explain the unique behavior of the novel materials created at CAM. This research is facilitated by the myriad of specialized tools available at the Center for Advanced Materials.
“We subject materials to a combination of extreme conditions: broad range of temperatures, high hydrostatic pressure environments and high magnetic fields,” Korneta explained. The lab’s tools are capable of generating a magnetic field of up to 15 tesla, which is the highest that can be found in the state.
With this equipment, researchers like Korneta take a variety of measurements – electrical transport, specific heat capacity and thermoelectric power, among others – to identify materials that demonstrate unusual phase transitions. “You don’t want material that is a total vegetable - this is the most interesting material. This is how electronic devices are made,” Korneta said.
This type of research helps the students make valuable discoveries while also increasing CAM’s capacity to build new materials tailored to meet specific needs. But in addition to his scientific discoveries while working at CAM, Korneta has also observed the potential for a shift in the future of funding fundamental scientific research.
“I was taught that results of an investment in fundamental science come after thirty years or more, and not many investors can afford to wait that long,” Korneta explained. “With the developments like you see in CAM, however, we see these investments coming back sooner.”
The Center for Advanced Materials and contributors like Korneta play an invaluable role in facilitating materials-based scientific research. “If you have an idea, you can use what CAM offers to develop your ideas and advance much further,” Korneta said.
“You either have some unique technique for measurements, some unique piece of equipment or you make your own materials. This means that your work is always valuable,” he added.
“As long as you are in the business of making new materials, you’re not waiting on someone else for your research. You are always on the cutting edge.”
photos by Tim Collins