Season 5 - Episode 546
After 22 years at R1 institutions like LSU, Julia Chan returned to her alma mater last winter to serve as the inaugural holder of The Tim and Sharalynn Fenn Family Endowed Chair in Materials Science at Baylor. In this Baylor Connections, she takes listeners inside her renowned work in quantum materials, explains the goal to build materials with exotic properties and shares the motivation to grow Baylor’s materials science research.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in-depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and we're discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking quantum materials and more with Dr. Julia Chan. Dr. Chan is the inaugural holder of the Tim and Sharalynn Fenn Family Endowed Chair in Materials Science. And she spent 22 years at Louisiana State and the University of Texas at Dallas. She's a Baylor alumnus who returned to her alma mater in 2022 to provide interdisciplinary material science leadership. A recognized expert in quantum materials, she serves as a deputy editor for the renowned journal Science Advances leading their physical science efforts. It's great to have you here on the program. Great to have you back here at Baylor where you spent your undergrad years and embarked on a great career elsewhere. There's so much growth here and you're a big part of that. And thanks for coming on the show today, Dr. Chan.
Julia Chan:Great to be here this morning.
Derek Smith:Well, good to have you here. I appreciate the fact that you say you've listened, so now we get to have you as a guest. I'm excited about that.
Derek Smith:Well, let me ask you, just to get started. Quantum materials just sounds interesting to start things off with. When you tell people, particularly without a science background, that you're a quantum materials researcher, are there common questions that you get or common comments that you hear that you get to explain?
Julia Chan:Yes, indeed. So as a chemist and a material scientist, I was trained ... After I left Baylor I went to the University of California at Davis, and also I spent time at the National Institute of Science and Technology for my postdoc. I think about strategic materials designed to impact any area of technological relevance. Basically, quantum materials have properties that cannot be described in terms of semi-classical physics. And what that means is that the sort of materials that we study have strong electronic correlations. In other words, electrons talk to each other. That leads to super connectivity and magnetism, or magnet materials with electronic properties that are non-generic quantum effects. So for example, a topological insulator is a material whose interior behaves like an electrical insulator while its surface behaves as an electrical conductor. Meaning that electrons can only move along the surface of the material.
Derek Smith:Wow. So when you think about what you just described, what are some industries or where are some places that would have a really strong interest in something like that?
Julia Chan:So the appeal of working in this area at any point in time is largely due to the complexity and the emergent properties of quantum materials. Imagine the more practical side of it, we argue that quantum materials with exotic electronic materials are properties, you can enable completely new applications that we have yet to discover. And gendering novel routes to magnetic fuel sensors will power modules, for example, memory modules, high-density storage devices, quantum computers. But as a chemist, I think about things like, can we design a material where the concept of emergence is a common thread in the study of quantum materials?
Derek Smith:It's interesting. We've had some people on the program before who work in advanced materials like Dr. David Jack, engineering. I don't know if this is common or not, but I think I've tended to think of it as when you look in the engineering side of things, but you're on the chemistry side. Is that unique in your discipline?
Julia Chan:Yes. I mean, there are people who are doing this as chemists. What's exciting is, and by definition what a material science is, is that you have to figure out what are the materials. You don't have to make the material in order to go to next steps to think about applications. Synthesis, characterization, and also measuring of physical property, and that's what we do as a material scientist.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Julia Chan here on Baylor Connections. And Dr. Chan, let's zoom out just a little bit. I mentioned at the top of the show, you're a Baylor grad, you returned to your alma mater after a very successful teaching career at LSU, at UT Dallas. Let's rewind a little bit to your experience as a Baylor student, as an undergrad here. What stands out to you when you look back and think about your time here?
Julia Chan:First of all, I'm truly honored to have returned to Baylor January of 2022. My Baylor experience, I think, in fact, is critical to my success as a scientist. The opportunity to be part of a research group as an undergraduate really helped me grow as a scientist and part of a research team. I also enjoyed the balance of my humanities and writing courses, and that is actually critical in my undergraduate research experience. And I played the violin in the Baylor Symphony as an undergraduate, and I'm still playing at my local church, playing in the orchestra, what a fun time. Really is an opportunity to learn, and serve, and connect, and network. Those are the skill set that I think are exciting, or are useful.
Derek Smith:You mentioned you played the violin and still do. I think it's easy to think of science and art as being on different sides of the brain, different sides of the aisle. Are they to you, or how much overlap is there when you think about what the violin brings to your life as well as science?
Julia Chan:Yes. So as I'm playing my instrument I think about my science too. In fact, I just taught a class, in my inorganic chemistry class so undergraduate and some graduate students this semester, talking about the symmetry. The world around us and music has a lot of symmetry and so does chemistry so it is an inspiration.
Derek Smith:That's great. A musician, a scientist, and you were a researcher as a student as well as you mentioned. With whom did you work in a research capacity when you were a student at Baylor?
Julia Chan:So I worked with Professor Carlos Manzanares, and I believe he was relatively new to Baylor at that point, and it was a wonderful opportunity. He took a risk too by taking someone who had not even had physical chemistry.
Derek Smith:That's great. You go to join him very green in terms of experience. What sorts of things did you get to do in his lab?
Julia Chan:I got to build a supercritical fluid cell. And actually, that's an interesting thing. Supercritical fluids is used for separation. We did laser spectroscopy. So imagine if you have a material that does not look like a solid, liquid, or gas, and a combination of the three.
Derek Smith:Wow. You were already working on some things that were very ... I don't know if exotic is the right word, but some things that were harder to quantify and so that got you on the path that you're on now. In terms of quantum materials, when did you first become interested? Where did that topic first grab ahold of you?
Julia Chan:So I worked in the field since the beginning of my academic career and it's distinguishable from my PhD work. And since quantum materials have evolved ... And what's unique in our focus is on the scientific insights to discover materials today for materials of tomorrow. We think about making profound discoveries that catalyze change in materials. So I talked about super connectivity a little earlier, but imagine displaying a beautiful quantum state which really can efficiently transform energy production, storage, transmission, and utilization. So making materials today for materials tomorrow.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Julia Chan. So you were interested in that path in the beginning of your academic career. This is a broad question. We could talk about where it took you in your career or just in your scientific pursuits, but how would you describe the path that quantum materials have taken you on?
Julia Chan:We have always been, as a chemist, excited about how can we make new materials so we can understand new phenomena. Again, without synthesis, we can't do this. But more importantly, now is the synthetic insights. When I was an undergraduate I was working on gas phase materials, but this is all a soluble state. I really think though the combination of synthesis and working with material sciences my whole academic career is critical. But also, without the synthetic design, one can't really advance technological innovation. We sit around and think about what sort of materials should we make. How do we go to the lab and design a new compound? I really think quantum materials is really a mechanism for future areas of science. Well, first come to materials.
Derek Smith:Well, glad to have you doing that here at Baylor after many years at LSU and UT Dallas, two R1 institutions. Get another broad question. What was meaningful to you about the opportunities you had at those two schools?
Julia Chan:I started my career but I was able to do a lot of synthesis, and I was also able to help hire new faculty members in all areas, especially the chemistry, physics, and engineering, and so that's something that I hope to continue doing. And again, it's that organization skills that is necessary. One fun tip, that I was on Welcome Week Steering Committee when I was an undergrad.
Derek Smith:Oh yeah.
Julia Chan:That was fun times. And it taught me how to be part of a group, and get organized, and network. Those things are also part of my really academic journey.
Derek Smith:We look at the areas in which you've been involved, I think it's clear that you have. Science Advances is one. That's a very prestigious journal, how were you able to get involved with them?
Julia Chan:So I was an editor for another material science journal for five or six years and then I was tapped to be an editor in 2015 when Science Magazine created an open access, a version of option for authors. Open access, it was all digital so you can include more details. Science Magazine has limited page numbers, and so it is useful to have an online venue to show scientific details.
Derek Smith:We talk about that role, what all does that entail? What all do you get to do with Science Advances?
Julia Chan:So I was deputy editor. I got promoted from associate editor to handle manuscripts to deputy editor. So I work with a team of associate editors now, and businesses and engineers to handle these manuscripts. So as deputy editor I screen, do the papers, then I assign it to the associate editors. And I also handle the manuscripts myself and get them peer-reviewed in the community.
Derek Smith:Dr. Chan, you touched on this a moment ago, but I'm going to ask you more specifically. You're a researcher, you're a scientist, and I can tell you're just curious about things too, interested in what's going on in your field. What is especially meaningful to you about this role and what it enables you? It sounds like you really stay on the cutting edge in a lot of ways.
Julia Chan:Sure. Really to be distinguishable for Baylor and even my group to think about what is the most impactful work. Being an editor requires me to read a lot and I also get new ideas. As an editor, I get to evaluate forefront areas of science, but then also to reach a broader audience, unlike a more specialized journal. And actually, that has in turn fantastic as a training ground for my own graduate students. How do we write and submit manuscripts that are more impactful and readable?
Derek Smith:That makes sense. Your students, as you get to work with them on this, they're able to benefit from that aspect of what you do. How, in general, would you describe what it means to you to be a mentor? Because I know you do it in any number of ways.
Julia Chan:Well, first of all, advancing US global leadership technologies of the future is so important. And if you think about from artificial intelligence to biotechnology to computing is equally important to have our students be competitive. And so I spend a lot of time working with my students to learn how to write manuscripts, and so they write the papers, so they're also good writers. And science communication is also really important.
Derek Smith:That's great. So we visit with Dr. Julia Chan here on Baylor Connections. Dr. Chan serves as the inaugural holder of the Tim and Sharalynn Fenn Family Endowed Chair in Materials Science in Baylor's department of chemistry and biochemistry. We mentioned you spent, Dr. Chan, 22 years at LSU and UT Dallas. While you were there, how much attention did you pay to what was going on back at Baylor? Were able to stay connected at all or what did that look like?
Julia Chan:Yes, I really like it and I do a lot. And I have to admit that Baylor does a really good job with alumni engagement. By the way, I'm also a big football fan. Most importantly, I do follow the research activities at Baylor.
Derek Smith:Although football's good too, you can do both.
Julia Chan:And basketball, of course.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. So you were staying close to what was going on at Baylor. You look at Baylor in the mid-90s, started talking about becoming more of a research university, and then in the early 2000s things started moving that direction. Was that a conversation that you paid attention to? I mean, I know you were pretty busy where you were doing the research you were doing.
Julia Chan:Yes, I was paying attention. And what's exciting is that coming from chemistry, the department has been doing lot of research for many, many years. And in fact, this past summer I got to visit with a former Provost, John Belew who just recently turned 102. And he was telling me what he did at Baylor, his research, and he was doing science at the forefront back then and it was such a wonderful time. And so it's been around for a while. In our chemistry department, we're one of the larger number of PhD students and department on campus so it is exciting to be part of that growth plan.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, what did Baylor's efforts to grow across the university, what did that say to you? And did that play any role in you ever wanting to come back here?
Julia Chan:Absolutely. And I just really think that part of it is a commitment to encourage and thinking about next steps. Vision plan is exciting but that it's at all levels from the department level all the way to the Provosts to upper administration and that is an exciting time.
Derek Smith:Illuminate and the alignment, was that something ... When you thought about coming back here, was that something you studied?
Julia Chan:Absolutely, especially with the material science, right, because I have that option now. Now there are people across campus with materials research interest, and I think we could determine what are the forefront areas and how are we supposed to be significant or distinguishable with all the materials programs across the country.
Derek Smith:That's an area that we've had some great researchers who were focused on growing. Maybe it's obvious, but let me just ask you from your standpoint. You look at all the areas Baylor could invest in, they've really elevated this as an important one. Why is that?
Julia Chan:We do have an opportunity to reach out to our students. We're along I-35, there are wonderful universities in the surrounding region. As someone who's been an academic for 22 years, thinking about how can we and how can I as an available alumnus help build that process, and that is exciting. And thinking about not just people but also the scientific areas.
Derek Smith:Well, you talk about the scientific areas it's chemistry and biochemistry, there's material scientists in physics, there's material scientists in the school of engineering and computer science. How does all of that come together? Because again it's not just one person, obviously, and it's not just one division.
Julia Chan:Right. So it comes back to the definition of material science. I've been asked that quite a bit lately. Material science is more than just synthesis or more than just doing some measurement but it's the collective sum of the synthesis, and characterization, and property measurements. In order for that device physics to happen, or in order for us to make a device, it is important to have all of the three components.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Julia Chan. And Dr. Chan, your title, the Tim and Sharalynn Fenn Family Endowed Chair in Materials Science. The Baylor family has invested in creating these new endowed chair positions. It's exciting to see these recruits coming in like you and others. But I'm curious for you, how would you describe what's appealing about the role as a chair and what opportunities that provides you to grow material science?
Julia Chan:Yes. Well, first of all, I appreciate Baylor to honor in perpetuity to do the Fenn family. I have met family and they're fantastic people. The endowed chair really provides the opportunity for me to develop new ideas and enhance my research activities. We can do high-risk, high-impact research and so that we can pursue new and external funding. The funds will also provide my students to spend time working with collaborators externally. We do a lot of traveling in national labs. And then with the recent CHIPS and Science Act, science and technology, and engineering, math education, STEM education, and workforce development activities are critical. Developing the skill set. So as a chair, I'm able to maybe think about ways to use the funds wisely to train students.
Derek Smith:And you mentioned the Fenn family, you got to meet them. And you know more about this than I do, obviously. They don't even have a material science background, but it sounded like what they just saw a university need and wanted to meet it.
Julia Chan:Exactly. But in fact they've been doing material sciences for a while.
Derek Smith:Oh really?
Julia Chan:Yes. They have a home that is lead-certified. And we talked about energy, and that's something that is exciting for even the general public, and that's what ... What a great opportunity to express that.
Derek Smith:Absolutely, absolutely. As you talk about that in endowed chair role and leadership in your area, how does that role enable you to work with other faculty as well? Your students are one part, but then it seems like there's cross-disciplinary opportunities on campus that these chairs facilitate, if that's the right way to put it.
Julia Chan:Absolutely. Having the background, and the scientific background in materials research has really helped me through this role. And I really think as a chair I'm also ... I'm able to say, "This is a fantastic opportunity to really communicate our thoughts." And we have several endowed chairs, we meet regularly to talk about the future of materials research.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Julia Chan. And Dr. Chan, this is another broad question. But looking ahead, where do you see Baylor's material science efforts growing? What are some things you're excited about as you look towards the future?
Julia Chan:Like I said earlier, we have to be unique to be competitive and distinguishable. But what is important to me is hiring faculty members who can think more broadly about next steps so we can't be incremental or just simply filling the hole. We have to be competitive, we have to hire people who understand what material synthesis is, characterization. It's really the skill set because science changes, right? And the idea is that by the collective nature of this effort we would eventually lead to devices and maybe even materials prediction. And that's by designing what material science is.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Chan, I appreciate your visit. And I'm curious. If you could look back 10 years ago, did you ever imagine yourself coming back to Baylor to teach, or has that been a pleasant surprise at this point in your career?
Julia Chan:It is a pleasant surprise and a wonderful time in my academic career. And as a more savage scientist, I could think more broadly about how I can contribute to the Baylor's mission. And again, I really care about training students too, and really making us competitive. Not just hiring people but making it diverse areas of material science. How about training diverse students with broad skill sets including science communication, and that's critical for our economic development and scientific competitiveness? And if I could play a role in that I would be a really happy human being.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, that'll be exciting to see that growth as it takes place. The communication side makes sense to you because you're involved in that regularly with Science Advance so that's got to be a real competitive edge for your students for sure if they can do that.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Chan, thank you so much for your time, I'm glad to have you back here at Baylor and it's great to have you as a guest on the program today.
Julia Chan:Well, thank you so much for the opportunity for me to share my thoughts today.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, Dr. Julia Chan, the inaugural holder of the Tim and Sharalynn Fenn Family Endowed Chair in Materials Science, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.