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Alumni Q&A: Jessica Bickel ’04
Jessica Bickel is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at CSU-Ohio.
What year did you graduate from Johns Hopkins? Were you involved in any research in the department?
I graduated with a dual degree in 2004: a Bachelor of Science in [Materials Science and Engineering] and a Bachelor of Music in Oboe Performance from Peabody. I did two years of undergraduate research with Jonah Erlebacher to measure the tensile strength of nonporous gold films.
What made you choose Johns Hopkins?
I chose JHU because it was the best of both worlds scientifically and musically. I visited all my top schools because I had auditions for the oboe. When I got to JHU, I had an interview with the admissions office and they asked me why I was interested in Chemical Engineering. I told the guy and he said, “If that’s it, then you should also check out Materials Science.” He sent me to chat with Dr. Spicer and I just loved MSE. At all the remaining schools I visited, I checked out the MSE department and the way my mother–who was with me for the visits–puts it, in other departments I was interested, whereas whenever I visited an MSE department I was “Wow! You can do THAT?!?!” And in the end, JHU/Peabody was the place that I could really do both oboe and MSE at the high level that I wanted to do so, and I really loved the departments at both schools.
Do you have any memories that stand out from the classroom or lab?
I love the camaraderie of the MSE department, both with each other and with the undergraduate majors. When I was there, I think we only had three majors in my graduating class and the professors knew all of us and we knew all of them. I think everyone wished me good luck for my final oboe recital, and they all recognized me still when I came back to visit 12 years after I graduated. I remember Dr. Cammarata poking his head in while Dr. Hufnagel was lecturing and giving a random witty comment and moving on. I remember learning that office hours weren’t all that scary while sitting in Dr. Erlebacher’s office for Electronic Properties class. I remember Dr. Hufnagel starting each class with a joke, normally a really bad pun [like] “Two sharks were swimming and they saw a ship full of potatoes, and the one shark says, ‘Do you want it?’ and the other shark says, ‘No, you can’t eat just one potato ship.'” I remember long discussions with Dr. Spicer about double reeds because his wife plays bagpipes, and oboe reeds and bagpipe reeds are very similar. And I remember long discussions about lab work in Dr. Erlebacher’s office as I learned CAD and prepped posters and presentations.
Your current work at CSU-Ohio focuses on “how surfaces can affect crystallization and properties.” What makes this research important? How did you become involved in it?
Materials Science is all about understanding the impacts that the processing has on structure and the structure has on properties. For me, the most intriguing part has always been the effect of structure on properties. Take, for example, carbon steel. Depending on how you process it, the steel can have either a face-center-cubic crystal structure or a body-center-cubic structure, and this dramatically impacts how brittle and strong the steel is.
My research really just takes this same idea down to the nanoscale. I have always been interested in nano, hence working on nanoporous gold with Dr. Erlebacher. I am fascinated by atoms. My PhD work looked at surface reconstructions and film grown in III-V semiconductor systems. Surface reconstructions form on the surface of any covalently- or metallically-bonded crystal because the atoms at the surface are missing atoms above them to bond to and so have a high energy due to these missing bonds. The atoms rearrange on the surface and bond with each other in order to lower the energy and the result is a repeating pattern on the surface that has both a variation in surface topography (peaks/valleys) and surface chemistry (atomic bonding). The result is that this surface reconstruction controls how atoms diffuse (move around) on the surface and how they are incorporated into the surface when you are growing thin or thick films. This can therefore impact how abrupt the interface is, which can affect how small we can make devices as each layer in a device is serving a specific function, so this is of great interest in thin-film semiconductors. It also impacts how magnetic materials self-assemble on a surface and can thus affect atomic scale magnetism. So surface reconstructions can be a big impact in a lot of different fields.
My current research is moving towards organic electronics. Organic electronics are of interest because they are typically easier and cheaper to produce than their Si-based competitors, but they also have lower conductivities than the Si electronics. One way that has been shown to increase conductivity in these materials is to crystallize them, so I am exploring whether a surface reconstruction can do so and what is the effect of the crystallization on the conductivities of these organic molecules.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your career thus far?
It’s really those “Eureka!” moments. The moment when you’ve been working so hard and then finally get the data you need, or have that breakthrough and understand what the data is actually telling you. Or more often, those days when the scanning tunneling microscope finally has atomic resolution and you are looking at atoms. It’s fun to look at atoms. But it’s not just my “Eureka!” moments. It’s also those of my students both in the lab and in the classroom. Watching them when they finally “get” that tricky concept or understand why this material is relevant to them as a non-major in my field. And it’s when they see atoms for the first time and really understand what research is in all its highs and lows.
Do you have any advice for aspiring engineers and materials scientists?
You never quite know where life will take you, and the boundaries between scientific departments and fields are really fuzzy. I’m currently teaching in a Physics department and loving it, even if I do miss talking about crystal structures and tensile strength sometimes. Just follow your interests and don’t let the name of a department dictate whether you do or do not belong there.