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Mason awardees display benefits of outsider perspectives

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Science  25 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6425, pp. 357-358
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6425.357

Fullerton and her lab team seek to create low-power devices.

PHOTO: PAUL KOVACH, SWANSON SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH

Susan Fullerton held up her iPhone 6s at the start of an award presentation and then displayed a 1991 full-page Radio Shack advertisement, pointing out that the cell phone now packages all the capabilities of each of the advertised electronics into a single, hand-held device.

Scientists have created such functionality by finding ways to make transistors smaller and smaller. In 2017, Intel announced that it can fit 100 million transistors into a square millimeter. Transistors, the main component in smart phones that boosts and switches electronic signals, have become so tiny that the electrons inside no longer exhibit behavior that allows devices to be turned on and off. “The era of miniaturization is over,” Fullerton declared. “We need new materials and device concepts.”

Fullerton, an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, is one of five winners presented with the 2019 AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Awards for Women in the Chemical Sciences at a 13 December awards ceremony at the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters.

At the outset of her career, she took a risk that one of her mentors told her would be a “career killer”—joining an electrical engineering department at the University of Notre Dame when her background was in chemical engineering. It was an opportunity to be at the same institution where her husband was working on his Ph.D., she said, and she managed to turn the challenge into a career-making decision. Once she was at Notre Dame, Alan Seabaugh, a professor of electrical engineering and director of the Semiconductor Research Corporation's STARnet Center for Low Energy Systems Technology, suggested that with her background, she could help his center investigate the use of ions as a tool for exploring the properties of two-dimensional materials and creating low-power devices.

Ions are atoms or molecules that have an electrical charge resulting from an unequal number of protons and electrons. As a chemical engineer, Fullerton came from a field where ions “make everything better”—whereas scientists who work with transistors and other semiconductor devices every day tend to avoid them because they can contaminate and ruin the device performance. In fact, in some nanofabrication facilities that mass-produce transistors, cleanroom workers must wear a different color cleanroom suit if their work brings them into contact with ions.

It took Fullerton and her electrical engineering colleagues several years, a willingness to learn, and dedicated funding before they were able to deeply understand one another's perspectives and begin to make progress. “It took many, many meetings” in which they had to accept each other's expertise, but also push back and argue, because “a communication barrier had to be overcome,” she recounted.

In what started as a side project, Fullerton began using ions not just as a tool to study new materials, but as an active component in the electrical devices she was developing. Although using ions to regulate the behavior of electrons in semiconductors was not a new concept, reducing the thickness of the ion-conducting material to just one molecule thick was new. “The concept was straightforward, but the execution was not,” Fullerton said. She was shocked when this “monolayer electrolyte” worked the way they intended it to, because it had never been demonstrated.

She and her team had created a new ion conductor with a particularly unique property: once the transistor was turned on it stayed on, and once it was turned off it stayed off in the absence of a power supply. This enables memory sticks to store information even when they are disconnected from a computer. Fullerton envisions a future where this type of switching could lead to a memory stick that operates on much lower power than those on the market today and to devices with never-before-seen properties, such as one that can be triggered to permanently destroy its data if it falls into the wrong hands.

The 2019 early-career Mason Award winners receive $50,000 as well as leadership development and mentoring opportunities. At the AAAS event, AAAS CEO Rush Holt said that the award's namesake, Marion Milligan Mason, supported the advancement of women in the chemical sciences and wanted to honor her family's long-standing commitment to higher education for women. Mason's grandfather sent six daughters to college in the late 19th century. Mason earned her doctorate in organic chemistry from Rutgers University in 1970 and was a longtime AAAS member. “She recognized the need to support women, who remain underrepresented in science and particularly in chemistry and the physical sciences,” said Holt.

Neela White, who helps manage the award at AAAS along with Michael Feder, said AAAS was truly “honored to be chosen to lead this award and to have the opportunity to interact with these scientists.” She noted that the award is part of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity's emphasis on highlighting and promoting diversity in science. White said that she hopes it will help “eliminate some of the stereotypes associated with traditionally male-dominated fields.”

Holt noted that each of this year's winners has made “extraordinary contributions” in basic research. Many of them, like Fullerton, made their groundbreaking discoveries by applying the lens of one discipline to solve problems that have stymied researchers in other disciplines. The recognition and funding from the Mason Award are especially critical because their research requires visibility in so many different fields. Awardees must make connections and collaborate with researchers in numerous fields, and funding for travel is limited. Adding to the challenge, fewer women than men are invited to speak at conferences, according to a 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fullerton is a firm believer in the benefits of being an outsider—a theme that echoed through the other presentations at the awards ceremony. Another winner, Vivian Ferry, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, combines nanocrystal chemistry and nanoscale optics to study light-matter interactions in materials. In one of her projects, she integrates nanostructured mirrors into “solar-harvesting” windows that capture diffuse sunlight and improve the efficiency of solar cells and can blend into buildings.

Heather Kulik, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an award winner, is a leader in applying machine learning and open source computational tools to inorganic chemistry. Instead of experimental techniques, she uses computer algorithms “to characterize the molecules and materials in chemical space” and understand how they can be used in an almost infinite number of applications.

Corinna Schindler, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan and another awardee, found a way to replace precious metals with iron in catalyzing the chemical transformations that create products ranging from rubber tires to pharmaceuticals, since iron is abundant in nature and less environmentally damaging than other common catalysts.

Like the other awardees, Lilian Hsiao is blazing a path between disciplines by applying structural concepts to fluid mechanics. After she gave a presentation about her dissertation work in soft materials for a job interview, one of the interviewers gave her the idea for her current research project on joint replacements. The interviewer pointed out that knee cartilage is a kind of soft material—like ketchup—and not unlike those she had previously studied. Now an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University, Hsiao is working on ways to make knee replacements longer-lasting and less invasive. People are often afraid to go outside their comfort zones, said Hsiao, but “to solve humanity's problems, we have to be a bit brave.”

The 2019 winners are the third group of Mason awardees. AAAS plans to build a community of alumni, like what it has done with the L'Oréal USA Fellowships for Women in Science. Applications for the 2021 Mason Awards open in fall 2019.

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