Physics’ Xuemei May Cheng’s Research Group Studies Spintronics

Posted October 13th, 2014 at 11:47 am.

Yilun Tang, Alena Klindziuk, and Leqi Liu at the Argonne

Yilun Tang, Alena Klindziuk, and Leqi Liu at the Argonne National Laboratory

This summer, Class of 2017 members Leqi Liu, Alena Klindziuk, Yilun Tang, and graduate student Xiao Wang went to the Advanced Photon Source of  the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago, a massive facility that generates the brightest hard X-ray beam in the Western Hemisphere, to study the magnetic properties of platinum-magnetic insulator bilayer thin films.

The students are part of Assistant Professor of Physics Xuemei May Cheng’s research group.

“The research of our group focuses on spintronics,” explains Cheng. “One of the major possible uses of this research is improved data storage. In spintronics you don’t only use electrons like in traditional semiconductor devices. Instead you also take advantage of the spin of the electrons.”

Also referred to as “nano-spintronics,” the importance of this research is summed up well in an abstract of a 2013 presentation given by Atsufumi Hiohata, University of York, on the Argonne website.

“In almost 10 years time, current nanoelectronic technologies will hit physical limitation, which does not allow us to miniaturize devices further. We therefore need to utilize an electron spin orientation to include extra information in an electron as a data carrier, leading to a new research field of spintronics. Spintronics is a new emerging field based on a combination of three conventional information carriers; electron charges, electron spins and photons. These carriers represent three major fields in information technology; data processing with electron transport, data storage with an assembly of spins and data transfer via optical connections.”

Cheng, who held a post-doctoral fellowship at Argonne, is among the leading researchers in the field of spintronics, and she’s also made it possible for Bryn Mawr students to engage in her cutting-edge research.

To date, five Bryn Mawr undergraduate students have conducted research at Argonne and Wang has traveled to the lab six times in the last two years.

And thanks to about $850,000 in grant funding Cheng has received in recent years from the National Science Foundation, the students can also do research right on Bryn Mawr’s campus in a state-of-the-art nanomaterials research laboratory that’s so advanced it’s used by collaborators from neighboring institutions, such as Villanova University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

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Students work in Bryn Mawr’s nanomaterials lab

“Whether we’re working with researchers from Penn here on our campus or with scientists from China at Argonne, this work is always collaborative,” says Cheng. “The main difference at a place like Bryn Mawr is that it’s undergraduate students who are collaborating.  My students leave with much more research experience than the average undergraduate at a research university. In fact, I heard back from a former  student who spent the last two years at CalTech through the 3-2 program that she misses the opportunity to work in my lab at Bryn Mawr.”

Most of the students who join May’s research group go on to enroll in engineering programs, many at some of the most prestigious in the nation.

Recent graduates have gone to Princeton, Columbia, U.C. Berkley, and U Penn.

The success of May’s students is all the more impressive given that many come to Bryn Mawr not even intending to major in physics.

Maggie Xiao ’15 came to Bryn Mawr from China with plans to be a medical doctor and to minor in French. As a first-year student she took a Modern Physics Laboratory class taught by Cheng.

“I was taking intensive French and still wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in but I was drawn to physics after that class,” said Xiao.

In her first three years at Bryn Mawr, Xiao has traveled to Argonne three times to do research. Her trips have been funded by an NSF grant of Cheng’s and through the Summer Science Research program. This summer she went to Rutgers to do research through LILAC summer funding.

“Maggie’s nanofabrication skills can compare with any senior graduate student,” says Cheng. “She’s made the same type of samples already that I was doing as a post-doc.”

The Department of Physics at Bryn Mawr College offers an engaging program in physics. In recent years Bryn Mawr College has averaged nine physics majors per year, approximately three percent of the graduating class. This is nearly 50 times the national average for women graduating with undergraduate physics degrees in the United States. For more information, visit the Physics Department website.

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