Physics professor named prestigious CAREER award nominee from the NSF

Rachel Yim, Science & Technology Reporter

The honor of National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award was given to Wei Zhang, assistant professor in the physics department at Oakland University.

As a foundation-wide activity, the CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious award for young researchers. Its award is annually presented to non-tenured faculty who have promoted their research and education and led advances in the mission of the department or organization.

“It is a great honor for me to receive such an award,” Zhang said. “[It is] also a good opportunity for the students whoever wanted to be involved in state-of-the-art physics research.”

Zhang’s new research project, which is a relatively new field, tries to revolutionize the current electronic industry by using the quantum mechanical property of electrons to develop new electronic devices that are faster, more secure and energy efficient.

“What we’re looking at first are the ‘building blocks’ — the stuff that will eventually make a complete device,” Zhang said.

According to Zhang, this project is geared toward developing novel quantum devices from a spintronics and magnonics — study of waves and magnetism — approach.

“Our team has an established expertise in researching spintronics, and we look forward to adopting our existing technical portfolio for researching in such a new, exciting direction,” he said.

The NSF will provide Zhang approximately $500,000 over a five-year period. With this funding, he said he plans on exploring the physics of quantum materials, either natural or artificially engineered, to enhance future electronic device performance.

Along with the research materials, the funding will involve education and outreach activities, including the development of quantum spintronic modules at OU. However, a majority of the fund will be used in supporting graduate and undergraduate student researchers, according to Zhang.

Besides his research on quantum spintronics, he has also worked on other research projects. These include novel materials and interfaces for energy-efficient computing devices and superconducting microwave devices relevant to future quantum information science.

As a physics professor, Zhang sees teaching and research as conjoint. His new project will contribute to the lab’s and department’s infrastructure by investing more state-of-the-art research facilities.

“Teaching and research always go hand-in-hand,” he said. “In particular, the project has an embedded education and outreach goal, namely, to develop a quantum spintronic laboratory module that will benefit OU students at large beyond just the physics department.”

The CAREER award, once again, proved Zhang’s research career, which has built “a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research,” according to the synopsis of the program on the NSF website.

With the recent recognition from the NSF, Zhang and his fellow student researchers will strive to discover a new scientific wave that can possibly revolutionize the electronics industry as they pursue the proposed research project over the next five years.