Materials science matchmaker

Materials science matchmaker

As a joint faculty appointee, David Mandrus conducts materials synthesis research at ORNL and the University of Tennessee. Photo by Charles Brooks.

Scientific research may be the primary focus of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, but for David Mandrus, the institutions play an equally important role in shaping the instruction and career paths of students.

“The national labs are a fantastic educational resource,” said Mandrus, who holds a joint appointment with ORNL and the University of Tennessee. “There’s a tremendous amount of education happening at Oak Ridge that goes unrecognized.”

Mandrus should know: He was practically born and raised in the national laboratory system. The materials scientist conducted research at Brookhaven National Laboratory as a graduate student at Stony Brook University and did a postdoc assignment at Los Alamos National Laboratory before joining Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1995.

He took on a joint faculty appointment with the University of Tennessee’s materials science and engineering department in 2010 to further develop his long-standing interest in teaching. Access to both institutions allows Mandrus to play a matchmaker role, connecting students to staff scientists across the lab.

“You know the saying -- it takes a village to raise a child. I’ve expanded that to: It takes a national lab to raise a student,” he said. “That’s my philosophy. Nobody is an expert in everything. Students can learn far more by interacting with all these different experts at national labs, to go beyond just what I know.”

In addition to his role as a mentor and teacher, Mandrus stays busy with his materials synthesis research. He was recently chosen as a Moore Synthesis Investigator, for which he will receive a $1.7 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to study quantum materials.

Among Mandrus’s goals as a Moore Synthesis Investigator is to bring magnetism to two-dimensional materials. Inspired by the 2004 discovery of graphene, a single layer of carbon with a host of unusual physical and electronic properties, Mandrus is wants to explore the potential of new two-dimensional materials.

He plans to apply his expertise to single layer magnetic semiconductors, which would benefit applications such as spintronics. An emerging form of electronics that requires little power, spintronics relies on an electron’s spin, or its magnetic moment.

“That’s where the kind of science I do comes in,” Mandrus said. “I make more complex materials, which have interesting magnetic and physical properties. A lot of materials synthesis research is discovery-driven rather than hypothesis-driven. It’s a different way of thinking.” - Morgan McCorkle, 865.574.7308, September 25, 2014