Materials researchers honored by National Science Foundation

Sachin Shanbhag

A pair of Florida State University researchers who are exploring the properties of two very different types of materials have earned major recognition — and support — for their work.

Sachin Shanbhag, an assistant professor in the Department of Scientific Computing, and Oskar Vafek, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and member of the Condensed Matter Physics research group at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, have won prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The awards are designated for young scientists who are still in the early stages of their academic careers and are intended to help them build upon previous accomplishments in their respective areas of research.

“Florida State is developing a critical mass of talented young faculty members who will be leaders in their fields for decades to come,” said FSU Vice President for Research Kirby W. Kemper. “This is another tangible example of the scholarly rigor that Florida State is already known for and continues to emphasize. Our congratulations go to Professor Shanbhag and Professor Vafek for this important recognition.”

Vafek, a theoretical physicist, is conducting research on a class of materials that includes graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet derived from the mineral graphite that is made entirely out of a hexagonal array of carbon atoms. Graphene’s remarkable electronic properties make it a potential candidate for use in numerous technological applications, which has sparked tremendous interest in the scientific community and in industry.

Oskar Vafek
Oskar Vafek

His CAREER Award, which comes with NSF funding of $84,000 a year over five years, will support integrated research, education and outreach activities, including the development of “wiki-books,” digital learning tools that will assist in the teaching of undergraduate and graduate-level physics courses. Using wiki-books, students work as teams to write certain chapters and edit others, thus sharpening their scientific writing skills while improving their understanding of often-complex concepts.

“I feel honored and exceptionally privileged to receive this award,” Vafek said. “I view it as a bestowal of opportunity, and responsibility, to pursue experimentally motivated and curiosity-driven theoretical research. I am also aware that I have greatly benefited from the stimulating and collegial atmosphere of the magnet lab and the FSU physics department, both of which have unreservedly supported the proposed line of research and educational activities.”

Shanbhag, meanwhile, is a computational scientist who utilizes incredibly high-powered computers to develop a better understanding of the behavior of synthetic polymers derived from petroleum. (About 10 percent of the world’s crude oil supply is diverted toward non-energy needs and is converted into such petrochemicals.)

Synthetic polymers are used in the manufacture of a great many of the things around us — everything from computers to cars, buildings, packaging, Teflon and home insulation, just to name a few.

“Even the world within us — think cellulose, DNA and proteins — is primarily polymeric,” Shanbhag said. “So learning how different polymers act and move under different environments is important.”

With his CAREER Award, which will provide $82,000 per year in funding over five years, Shanbhag will continue to develop computational models of polymer dynamics. Developing such knowledge “will help us build better and cheaper synthetic polymers, or use existing polymers more optimally,” he said.

Shanbhag cited two examples of how this might benefit society:

  • Lighter cars and airplanes could be made by substituting metal with polymer composites, thus reducing their weight without affecting performance. Since these newer materials are easier to process and lighter, their usage brings down the vehicles’ cost and makes them more fuel-efficient.
  • The human body is replete with examples where an understanding of the motion of a polymer (such as DNA) through a complex dense environment (such as the cell) is vital. The delivery of therapeutic genes to target cells is one immediate area where such knowledge could be exploited.

He was quick to share the credit for the NSF award.

“I’ve benefited enormously from the excellent computational resources available at FSU through the Department of Scientific Computing and the High Performance Computing Center,” Shanbhag said. “The center is a gem. The staff who manage these resources are terrific, and that has been instrumental in allowing me to focus on the science, instead of babysitting and troubleshooting the machines.

“My background is in engineering, so I also benefit enormously from collaborators and friends throughout the university in industrial engineering, chemical engineering, physics, math and chemistry,” he said.

In addition to Shanbhag and Vafek, two other Florida State faculty members have won NSF CAREER Awards in recent months. Karen M. McGinnis, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Science, and Michael Shatruk, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, also received the awards and accompanying funds to advance their research.

“These four young faculty members, and many others like them here at FSU, are pushing the boundaries of knowledge in their respective fields,” Vice President Kemper said. “Through their hard work, and with the continued support of the National Science Foundation and Florida State, our society will be the ultimate beneficiary of their cutting-edge research.”