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Physicist Pushes Boundaries of Photonics and Electronics

Physicist Pushes Boundaries of Photonics and Electronics

​Much of what Dr. Xiaoqin "Elaine" Li researches is completely invisible to the human eye. She works with materials that are merely a few atoms thick and observes processes that occur within a trillionth of a second.

​An associate professor in the Department of Physics at The University of Texas Austin, Dr. Li leads a research group focusing on optics and materials. She and four other collaborators were recently awarded a $2 million grant by the National Science Foundation to research and develop lightweight, flexible semiconductors for potential use in bendable computer screens and wearable electronics. 

Dr. Li's work in optics and materials gives her a unique perspective for approaching problems. She and her lab are pushing the boundaries of photonics and electronics by investigating the properties of new materials. 

"Everything is made of something," Dr. Li says. "So if you want to improve any kind of device, you start by looking at what it's made of. Generally, by improving those materials, you can improve devices." 

Dr. Li uses lasers that generate short bursts of light lasting less than a trillionth of a second in order to better understand the novel materials she works with. The lasers act like cameras with very fast shutter speeds, allowing the research team to capture the fast dynamics of electrons. 

"A lot of properties of materials are decided by electrons, by qualities like how tight the bond is between electrons and ions," Dr. Li says. "We use our lasers to try to watch how electrons behave." 

Dr. Li is both cautious and optimistic about the practical applications of her research, saying, "We are usually not concerned about short-term applications. However, we believe that our research will affect technology in various ways in the long run." 

It is not unusual to see applications of fundamental research 20 or 30 years after the initial discovery, she notes. The impact of fundamental research can be disruptive or revolutionary, and she firmly believes that supporting fundamental research is essential for technological and economical development. 

Joe Seifert is a senior majoring in physics at UT Austin who works in Dr. Li's research group. Seifert says Dr. Li takes a unique approach to managing the team. 

"You can be very involved in the physics of a project, taking measurements that really matter and understanding the research, and that's the approach that Dr. Li takes with her students," he explains. Dr. Li began studying physics in order to become a teacher. She said it's important for her to be able to both conduct research and interact with students. 

She believes that a solid understanding of physics is essential for students of any discipline. "I like to ask my Intro to Physics class on the very first day: 'If this generation of humans was to become extinct tomorrow, what's one sentence of knowledge you'd want to leave behind for any survivors? And like Richard Feynman said, you'd want to tell the next generation that things are made of atoms." 

Dr. Li teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses at UT Austin. She said she enjoys the opportunity to introduce college-level physics to engineering majors and other non-physics students. 

"People get scared of physics, so I thought about how to teach it in a way that isn't intimidating," Li says. "You take a complicated problem, and you break it down. Physics asks what the most fundamental part of something is." 

She tries to act as a mentor for her students. Although she often flies to Europe and Asia for research work, she uses Skype to call her students and works through physics problems with them. 

"One of my students graduated and sent me the CD for the Tiger Mom book, which I thought was funny," Li recalls. "In many ways, I am a Tiger Mom to my students. My role as a teacher is to help the students reach their highest height. " 

Dr. Li said teaching and researching at UT Austin has taken her on a journey of self-discovery. She compared beginning a research project to starting a marathon with no finish line. 

"You start at point A and think you're going to point B, but often you get to point C by accident, which can sometimes be even more important," she says. "You get answers to questions you didn't even think to ask."

Physics Department interns Megan Kallus, a junior English major, and Max Parks, a fifth-year Physics and Astronomy student, wrote this article. Video by Jeff Mertz, a recent graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program.

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Thursday, 24 August 2017

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