Office Hours with Aldo: Nadya Mason (w/ video)

Office Hours with Aldo: Nadya Mason (w/ video)

On Thursdays throughout the semester, staff writer Adalberto Toledo will book an appointment with a UI professor. Today: physics Professor NADYA MASON, director of the new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

Mason can levitate things with her mind. Well, kind of.

She works and develops superconductors. They're depicted in those videos you may have seen on Facebook showing some of the cool things science can do — like small magnets floating in mid-air, usually surrounded by a frozen mist.

But superconductors have big implications for the fields of quantum computing, magnetic levitation and storage, and for the future of electronics.

Mason, director of the new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the UI, has been studying the way electrons move through different materials for years. She has won multiple awards and fellowships since earning her bachelor's in physics from Harvard and her Ph.D. from Stanford. Here's what else we learned during a visit to her office, deep in the labyrinth of the Materials Research Laboratory.

You work mainly with superconductors, those little magnets that make things float?

Yeah, of course, levitating trains. Who can forget those? It's a great physics trick that never fails to impress, even among other faculty. You know, you take out the little superconductor and it makes things float. It's cool, at the very least.

Superconductors can have larger implications, right?

Right. So, what's really cool about it is that superconductivity is a really fundamental concept and a really deep physics concept. These are materials that have zero electrical resistance, which means that you lose no energy when you put power and currents through them.

So, you can imagine applications like power lines that you don't lose energy from, or they can hold very high currents in them without losing energy, so you can use them for solenoids that store power. Or, you can use them to create basically these circulating currents that repel each other and can levitate things like trains. There are a lot of applications and promise for these. I'm in physics, so I study the very fundamental materials aspect of these.

So, how does it work?

This whole phenomena occurs because electrons (the things that carry electricity) in a superconductor end up being paired up and these pairs can then flow through the material without bumping into anything. So, it seems like this crazy trick, but it's really fundamental physics and quantum mechanics.

And I think one of the limitations of technology is not having a really fundamental understanding of the material. We really need fundamental research to really understand things better before we have eureka moments or before we can even make incremental change. So the fundamental research that we do here in the physics department — that I do in my lab — hopefully will lead to applications and things that make our lives better and improve society, but through these fundamental studies.

What are some of your other duties here?

I do a ton of things, I teach the 200-level introduction to electromagnetism class. I have a research lab of eight people, all working on different aspects of electronic materials. I do a lot of outreach and service, so I give talks in the community. And I try to be a big advocate for women in physics and for underrepresented people in physics. The STEM fields are not as diverse as they should be, so I really care about getting opportunities to a lot of people.

And I'm also directing the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center — that's a mouthful but we call it the MRSEC. This is a new National Science Foundation-funded center that just started this year. It's a collaboration between 15 different professors and we work on two major research projects that are designed to improve fundamental research. So one deals with flexible electronics, that could be used in clothes that have electronics in them or medical applications. And the other focuses on magnetism, which is used for storage.

We're really excited about this because it integrates different disciplines, and also includes another big program of outreach for students. So it's really a center; we're trying to be more than just research and take classes but really integrate everything into a materials community."What's your favorite part of being a professor? "It's really the variety of work that I get to do. For many of us, it's a challenge as a kid choosing one thing that we want to do. Do you want to teach? Do you want to work in an office? Do you want to go out and interact with people? And I feel like I get to do a little bit of all of that.

Do you wish you had time to do one specific thing?

I wish I had more time so I could spend more time on all of these things, that would be wonderful.

The best thing to me about being a professor is that we get to work on the things that we care about, right? So, if you can come up with a great idea, and write a grant and get funding for it, and get students and other people interesting, you get to see that implemented. And I think that's rare in life, to be able to see actually your ideas come to fruition in various ways.

They don't always work. Sometimes I have a great idea and it completely fails and students are disappointed, and everyone's upset. But that's part of life. That's science.

What's your most exciting moment, though?

You mean, besides having kids and stuff?

Aside from that. What's your champagne-popping moment?

Well, I could tell you a story. I had a project that I had in mind when I was doing my thesis work, which was many years ago. And I kept thinking about it and trying it and I put my very first student on it years ago. And she had a lot of trouble getting it to work.

There was a time when she came to me and she said, "You know, this isn't working, this project isn't working and I don't know what to do." I just remember having this sinking feeling of "Oh my gosh, this is an idea that I loved, and it's just never going to work."

It was really scary. I had faith in it, I thought it would be really interesting and I thought it would work. And sure enough, within like a year, she got this project working and wrote a really big paper about it.

Not only did she do all this work and get a really good result out of it, but very soon after her publication, other people around the country and around the world started imitating the technique and the idea and doing the same thing. And it started this new area of physics of trying to manipulate superconductivity.

It was validating and really exciting for me. But it's also a reminder not to give up on your ideas. Sometimes they fail, but sometimes they don't.

Thanks, Nadya.

Thank you.