Peter K. Davies: Materials Science and Engineering
Peter K. Davies loves a challenge. An expert in solid state chemistry and properties of electronic ceramics, Davies came to Penn in 1983 by way of Oxford and Arizona State to teach thermodynamics, a class which, he says with a smile, “nominally, nobody’s going to want to take.” Hinting at the dedication and creativity that have helped him win numerous teaching awards, Davies adds, “That’s perfect for me. I love teaching. And if it weren’t a challenge, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much.”
Davies took on leadership of the Materials Science and Engineering department in 2002, toward the beginning of the nanoscale revolution. Working in an inherently interdisciplinary field that integrates knowledge from physics, chemistry, math,
biology, and all aspects of engineering, materials science engineers have long examined the properties of atomic scale structures in order to engineer materials that are part of our everyday lives, from bridges and bicycles to computer chips and medical implants. But nanoscale research is enabling the assembly of new structures of atoms, with properties as yet uninvestigated. While larger than the atomic structures with which materials science engineers traditionally work, nanoscale materials present a greater challenge because, as Davies puts it, “Trying to tell thousands of atoms to do one thing is harder than dealing with a single atom.” Using what Davies calls “some very clever chemistry and instrumentation,” such as electron and scanning probe microscopes, “we can now start to organize materials in ways that were unheard of 10 years ago. We’re at the beginning of engineering a whole new set of materials.”
While yet to catch up to the pace of retirements in the department, Davies’ recent faculty hires represent expertise in the construction of nanowires with unique, semi-conducting and optical properties; responsive polymer-based nanostructured materials; multiscale materials modeling and computation; mechanical properties at the nanoscale; molecular electronics; and the fabrication of artificial atoms, or quantum dots.
Davies has also set his sights on the courses offered in the department. “I wanted to translate all of these really exciting changes in research and potential applications into education,” he says, “and to provide a cutting-edge academic program.” The result is the first undergraduate program in the country to focus on the fundamentals of nanoscale research. In the four years since the new curriculum was implemented, Davies has seen a significant increase in the size of the graduating class, and has watched overall undergraduate enrollment grow from 25 to 120 students. This is in addition to the department’s 80 graduate students, 15 post-doctoral fellows, and 11 faculty members.
Complementing and facilitating the work of Penn’s materials science engineers will be the Krishna P. Singh Nanotechnology Center, which, as Davies says, “will provide us with an outstanding infrastructure for the techniques we use to look at nanoscale phenomena.” The Singh Nanotechnology Center will feature a vibration and magnetic field isolated environment, where microscopes can perform perfectly, and a nanofabrication facility, where students and faculty will have all the tools necessary to translate advances in nanoscale research into revolutionary new materials, particularly for energy applications, computing and communications devices, and biomedical materials.
Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Peter K. Davies: Materials Science and Engineering,” by Catherine Von Elm.
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