Erika ArtukovicThe Point Where Everything Comes in Play
Physics, Chemistry and Philosophy at the NanCardonao-scale
University of California, Los Angeles
How could one piece of paper be a 200-page book?
The question sounds a little like a philosophical riddle, and perhaps that's one reason UCLA IGERT Fellow Erika Artukovic - a Southern California native who majored in physics and philosophy at Dartmouth as an undergraduate - finds it so interesting. But unlike many philosophical questions, this one may soon have an answer. And Erika, as she pursues her PhD in physics within UCLA's interdisciplinary Materials Creation Training Program (MCTP), just might help find it.
Erika specializes in biophysics, a field in which biological structures and processes are explored through the lens of physics. Her research is currently focused on using tiny strands of polyaniline-a plastic which conducts electricity-in transistors to act as biosensors by detecting Hydrochloric Acid and ammonia in the air.
''In general, we're moving toward plastic electronics, which could be used in things like electronic paper,'' Erika explains. ''This would be flimsy and flexible, with thousands of transistors which are also flexible because they'd be made of polymers (plastics). Since they conduct electricity you could have them turning on and off and moving inks around so that you could actually change where the ink is on the electronic paper. For example you could have really large scale displays like billboards that could be changed electronically ,so that rather than having to paint the whole thing, you could just change it all electronically.'' Or one day, perhaps, you could have a single sheet of paper which could reconfigure its own ink for each page of a novel.
While such concepts may still be hard for the rest of us to grasp, Erika is actually drawn to the work because, coming from a background in theoretical physics and philosophy, she finds it refreshingly concrete.
''One of the things I've learned is that chemistry research projects are very much oriented towards what the final projects will be in the real world,'' she says. ''Whereas physics is generally much more theoretical. So doing this IGERT has changed my thinking a lot - I'm really thinking about real-world applications.''
Since the program is in part focused on preparing students to enter an increasingly interdisciplinary workforce, keeping an eye on the 'real world' is one of the principles of the UCLA IGERT (which includes the disciplines of chemistry, physics, biology, material science, and engineering, and offers lectures on such topics as ethics, entrepreneurship and venture capital).
''Being a part of the IGERT program has helped me in my research by giving me a broader understanding of what I'm doing...especially with nanoscale materials, the work is inherently interdisciplinary... and I mean, I haven't taken a chemistry lab since I was a sophomore high school. It was really good for me to just get in there and get my hands on some beakers again.''
In a way, the project has brought Erika, who was originally more drawn to chemistry in high school, full-circle. The MCTP allows Erika combine some of the abstract thinking from her undergraduate training with the concrete satisfaction which she says comes with ''the incremental process of actually getting things to work.
''I've always been interested in more metaphysical things, but I knew that I eventually wanted to get a job, so I decided to go into physics...When you get down to the quantum level, the questions become less about physics and math and more philosophical, in terms of 'what does this mean?' and 'what is reality?'. That's what really got me away from chemistry originally, that it doesn't really get to these fundamental questions... of course the philosophy isn't as evident in the work I'm doing now, which is much more applied, but it definitely gives you a way to look at the world in terms of basic logic and organizing your thought process.''
Erika says she's not sure whether she'll stay in academics or take an industry job after she completes the program, but she feels that her interdisciplinary training will prepare her for either. In fact, she feels that the type of interdisciplinarity practiced at the MCTP is essential to the evolution of scientific knowledge and technological discovery.
''The sciences that seemed to be so very separate have progressed to a certain point (where they cross over). We're now dealing with nano-scale materials - when you're dealing with something that small, the sciences can't be separated. For example, biological processes like having something move through a cell wall into a cell - well, biologists understand how that happens at that scale, but there's also now physics involved, in terms of particles' charges and the forces at work and the transport mechanisms, so you can look at it with a physical model. Whereas maybe 20-30 years ago it was enough for the biologist to get the thing to go into the cell, rather than looking at the mechanism behind it so we can use our understanding of that to do other things.''
For example, she says, the use of transistors in the biological environment may soon allow for the creation of artificial eyes which can replicate the electrical signals sent to the brain by the proteins of natural eyes when they sense light.
''I think it's a matter of the advancement of technology to the point where everything comes to play,'' Erika says. ''No matter what field you're in, in terms of the future, I think that things are going to become more and more like this.... right now it's biochemistry, and physics involving chemistry - that's where all the new stuff is happening. And that's exactly the intent of the IGERT, to recognize and encourage that.''
Erica received her Ph.D. from UCLA in June 2008!
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