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Cutting-edge laboratory promises atomic research

Jan. 20, 2010

By Sara Tirrito
Staff Writer

Dr. Zhenrong Zhang, a new assistant professor of physics from China, has begun work this semester to start a Scanning Tunneling Microscopy lab in the Baylor Sciences Building.

The lab will be equipped to obtain atomic resolution such that actual atoms and molecules can be seen on surfaces. Zhang also hopes to set up a program that will delve into environment and energy-related research.

"We had an opening in the department last year that we advertised for," said Dr. Greg Benesh, chairman of the physics department.

"We were looking for the best candidate, but we didn't specify a particular area and Dr. Zhang's name came to the fore, and this expertise in scanning tunneling microscopy really complements some of the existing strength in the department."

Plans for the STM lab have since been set into motion. The design is complete and is now out for bids to determine the cost. The lab will contain an Ultra High Vacuum Chamber, various surface science analysis tools and a Metal-Organic Oxide Chemical Vapor Deposition (MOCVD) system.

The MOCVD system was obtained by Zhang as a donation to Baylor.

"This piece of equipment [the MOCVD], gives us extended ability to synthesize thin film," Zhang said."We are hoping that this could bring more research programs in the department and we hope other people could come and use this equipment to synthesize thin film."

Benesh said there are plans for the lab to be set up as a multi-user facility, and that hopefully it will gain funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Robert A. Welch Foundation and others. At the earliest, the lab will open in July.

"Because of the accuracy of this technique with the STM, there are other interesting problems that people from neighboring universities or industry might have and they would love to see exactly what the reaction is that's taking place on the surface, or what the structure is, and so they can bring those samples in here. We can take a look and image them properly, so they'll be able to recognize what's happening," Benesh said. "And then with the MOCVD system we can deposit the layers that are required for other studies that people are interested in. We're hoping that her lab will be successful so she can track outside funding."

Along with the lab, Zhang hopes to set up a research program focused on environment and energy-related research that will provide opportunities for students and allow for collaboration with other faculty members.

"From the student point of view, it will provide the students the opportunity to do what we call the cutting-edge research," Zhang said.

"We really want to attract more funding, external funding, and to really strengthen the research program in the department."

Zhang believes both the STM lab and the research program will mesh with other research already being done in the department.

"I think it's kind of a match between the research program that I proposed and with the existing program in the department," she said. "Dr. Ken Park already has a surface science program going on, and with what I proposed, the program, if I joined the team it could make this program stronger.

"Dr. [Greg] Benesh, he does some theoretical calculation about the surface physics, so his research and my research and Dr. [Ken] Park's research could all merge together, have a stronger program, which would be good for both the department and the university."

Park, who has a surface science lab, helped Zhang design the STM lab and also believes that it will strengthen his work in the department. .

"I basically assisted her designing her lab based on the design of my lab here, because we have very similar common interests," Park said.

"Her STM lab will really complement my activities here."

Zhang aims for her research to be "closely related to the everyday life."

"When I do this type of research," Zhang said, "and when I look at everyday problems, energy, the environment-- people talk about [that] all the time so I feel like all this research really can be useful."

Zhang comes to Baylor with an extensive background in science. After obtaining her PhD from the Chinese Academy of Science, Zhang left China to participate in postdoctoral research at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and later came to the U.S. as a joint post-doc between the University of Texas at Austin and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) in Richland, Washington.

When Zhang began looking for a job, she was offered a promising position at a university in China, but Baylor's Christian affiliation swayed her decision.

"Baylor is a Christian university-- that makes a big, big difference. I was baptized three years ago, and while I was looking for a job I actually got a job offer back in China...But one main struggle I have, is it is not a belief-free country," Zhang said.

"So that's actually one of the main, main reasons once I got this offer I said 'oh I have to come to here.' And of course here the department did really all they can do to support me and to get the start--up that I need to set up this lab, so I really, really appreciate both the department and the university for the support."