Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet SUBHA KUMAR, who has a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the University of Illinois and is now a senior research scientist at nanomanufacturer Inprentus in Champaign. She was featured in the 100 Days of Women project for the UI's Urbana campus.
Before we move on to the technical side, you are also a dancer and perform Indian classical dance for events like Spurlock Museum's Worldfests and at Krannert Art Museum. Is there any crossover between dance and your math/spatial skills?
I was introduced to Indian classical dance by my mother at the age of 4 and I happily took to it. To her, it was important that I learn a skill her parents considered taboo. All performing arts impart what my friends call a straight spine (confidence), communication, the spirit of teamwork and a heightened creativity from trying many choreographies to the same song. Indian classical dance in particular helps me master complex patterns in space and time while keeping my focus on the rhythm. When you are sieving through a 100 variables that affect a problem of choice, one needs to learn to spot the falling apple.
Tell us about how you developed an interest in materials science and nanomanufacturing.
I was always looking to do what was not popular at the time in India. I was studying electrical motors in freshman lab when molecular motors were in the news. These are machines a billion times smaller inside our cells that perform complex functions spontaneously. I was fascinated by the idea of tiny, tiny machines with a brain of their own, and applied for a science scholarship to study what I thought were tiny mechanical machines made of hard materials. I later realized that "machines and motors" in our body are made of soft materials. Once I learned how these soft materials behave near surfaces in my Ph.D., I realized I can manipulate them into precisely nano-manufactured products.
In layman's terms, what does Inprentus do?
Inprentus nanomanufactures in Champaign a precision optic that acts both like a mirror and an advanced prism. This is used in synchrotron "super microscopes" which then "films" nature in all its beauty and complexity.
How does that work?
Like a prism spreads white light into different colors, scientists in national labs (like Argonne) and NASA would like to sort near X-ray light into its constituent colors. They then use it to illuminate elusive material properties or to study the sun's corona. In 2012, Inprentus founder and UI physics Professor Peter Abbamonte needed one of these diffraction gratings for his research and couldn't find one. So he decided to make one himself.
What is your specific role?
Thin films of material need to be patterned into precise sawtooth shapes and sizes to enable efficient light sorting by our products. My role is developing the know-how to create these shapes that are tens of nanometer shallow on a 100-nanometer-thin film. Instead of traditional way of cutting through a hard material, soft materials can be gently moved and stacked in a process called nanoburnishing. As all our products are custom, I do research and development to guide production to help achieve these shapes in a variety of customer size requirements.
Tell us about the team.
Inprentus has a young, highly collaborative team that is technically accomplished and yet fiercely academic in disposition and is mostly Midwestern. It is led by Jonathan Manton, the chief technology officer, who grew up in Champaign. The other team members come from different parts of the United States like Iowa, Minnesota and Boston, ensuring varied points of view are always on the table. The R and D team is Ph.D.s from UI departments as varied as physics, chemical engineering, and materials science working shoulder to shoulder with a non-engineer, non-Ph.D. mathematician who was the first employee and impressively built our machines from scratch.
Inprentus was founded by Small Business Innovation Research grants from the National Science Foundation and serves as an industry collaborator on this NSF-funded node. Who are some of the industries involved?
The nanomanufacturing node at Illinois serves to act as a resource point for both students and industries that work on full-scale manufacturing at the nanoscale. Collaborative activities include but are not limited to industrial internships for students, visit by center faculties and students to companies to understand industry challenges, hosting Industry expert seminars and interfacing with NCSAindustry partnership program.
Other than Inprentus, which served as the inaugural model and had the syncretistic partnership due to our initial NSF funding, researchers at the node have ties with other companies like 3M, Foxconn Interconnect Technologies and Intel with plans to work with the vast pool of industrial partners of the NCSA.
You like to mentor young engineers. Have some of them joined Inprentus?
Inprentus is actively involved in industrial mentoring and has a history of treating interns as though they were full-time employees in terms of project autonomy and challenge. Half our R and D team was hired first as graduate interns before they became full-time employees. I am/have been involved with mentoring two graduate internships, two undergraduates from Illinois, one exchange undergraduate student from Berkeley and a high school student from Centennial High School.
TECH TIDBITS ... from SUBHA KUMAR
What's your favorite app? Facebook. It gives me a platform to connect with older people or people with diverse backgrounds and countries without the vanity of instagram.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Books ... when there is no active internet connection. "The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind" by Raghuram Rajan.
Do you have any wearable electronics? I am notorious for having a horseshoe around my neck all the time. It is a pair of Bluetooth earphones from LG that doubles as a statement neckpiece and is a great conversation starter. More importantly, it's great for podcasts during long hours inside the cleanroom.