Faculty Q&A: Ken Livi

June 17, 2016

Ken Livi

Dr. Kenneth Livi is the Director of the Materials Characterization and Processing Facility in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. His research interests include the characterization of inorganic and organic materials, biomaterials, earth materials, and surfaces of nanomaterials through electron microscopy.

How did you get interested in materials science? What interests you the most about materials science?

Originally, I was trained as a mineralogist at Stony Brook University where I started research on Lunar Highland rock chemistry. My interest then turned to subsolidus phenomena in the igneous mineral pyroxene. In order to understand the submicrometer features within these minerals, I needed to use the transmission electron microscope (TEM). In turn, in order to understand how to use the TEM and interpret the features I saw on the nanometer scale, I had to read up on the classic materials science literature. This was my first exposure to materials science. Through my graduate school research, I realized that the mineral systems I studied had many textural and thermodynamic parallels to metallurgy. The flow of information often was that Materials Science laid down the foundational theories that mineralogy would pick up and apply to geologic processes.

When I came to Hopkins, my job was to establish a new TEM and electron microprobe facilities that served the entire Hopkins community. This further exposed me to problems that directly dealt with materials research. At that time, I realized that I enjoyed all kinds of puzzles, be they geologic, environmental, engineered, or biological in nature.

In the end, I’ve seen an extremely wide variety of materials ranging from high- and low-temperature minerals, to jet engine turbine blades, to viruses and bone. The thread that runs through all of my interests is the joy of discovering the what, how, why, and sometimes when, of materials behavior.


What do you consider your biggest research accomplishment so far?

As far as research accomplishments, I have made my most important contributions in the field of clay mineralogy discovering how sediments on the ocean floor eventually become the core of mountains. This is the study of low-temperature metamorphism and requires the use of TEM, scanning electron microscopy, and X-ray diffraction techniques to examine very small particles in great detail. From the textures, structures, and compositions of these small minerals, we can piece together the history of how deep, how hot, how long, and what fluids were involved in the making of the mountains. In my case, I studied the Central Swiss Alps. Not a bad place to do field work.

However, I place my teaching and training of many electron microscopists from around the world even more important than my research accomplishments. I feel very fortunate that Hopkins has attracted many great students with whom I could share my experience with. It’s been an honor to be a part of their education and the establishment of Hopkins’ reputation.


Where do you see the future of your field of research headed? What innovations are coming?

I can summarize what I do in one word: characterization, the discovery of the nature of a substance. The field of characterization is always evolving. Sometimes science drives the need for the development of new techniques to answer questions. Sometimes developments in techniques lead to new discoveries about materials that open up new ways of thinking about them. One of the major breakthrough developments in characterization was both pushed by recent interests in nanoscale materials, but also has expanded our ability to understand and explore nanomaterials. This was the development of the aberration-free TEM that has allowed the imaging of single atoms. We here at Hopkins are gearing up to acquire this expensive piece of equipment, along with tools that will reveal the three-dimensional structure of materials and nanometer scales. These tools will become part of the Materials Characterization and Processing (MCP) center that serves the Hopkins community and beyond.


What advice do you have for students and young engineers engaging in materials research?

The measure of your success should be relative to your own standard, not by what others impose on you. Listen to the advice of people you respect, but make sure that their advice leads you in directions that you will be proud of. That includes defining your personal balance of work, family, and spiritual pursuits. In the end, following your passions will lead to a rich life.


Outside of research, what hobbies or activities interest you?

I most enjoy playing music with fellow musicians. I grab opportunities to play the blues on my electric guitars whenever I can. Fortunately, my family is musical, so I can share that joy with them…preferably around a fire pit.

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