Materials student earns ‘Gold’ for graduate research presentation

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Zakaria Al Balushi, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering, was awarded the Materials Research Society (MRS) Gold Graduate Student Award for a presentation on his research on two-dimensional materials.

Al Balushi, an Alfred P. Sloan Scholar and 3M Graduate Fellow, presented research on group-III nitrides, which are considered one of the most technologically important classes of materials since the discovery of silicon. Al Balushi has developed an alternative growth scheme to create two-dimensional forms of three-dimensional materials. This synthesis process, referred to as migration enhanced encapsulated growth, creates new properties for the materials and could lead to new technologies. The presentation was based on his research published in Nature Materials.

“It’s really a new synthesis idea where you can take something that’s not 2D and force it to be 2D so you can get the benefits of the material plus the benefits of 2D,” said Al Balushi.

The method can be used to create materials that can be used in a range of devices such as miniaturized laser diodes, solid state photodetectors and UV emitters, which are important for everything from water purification to devices used in the quantum transfer of information.

“We have this palette of naturally occurring 2D materials, but to expand beyond this, we have to synthesize materials that do not exist in nature,” said Al Balushi. "Typically, new material systems are highly unstable. But our growth method uses a layer of graphene to assist the growth and stabilize robust structures.”

Al Balushi presented his work after earning a seat in the final competition held during the annual MRS Fall Meeting and Exhibit in Boston, where he presented his research to a general audience. He said his experience mentoring undergraduates and presenting at Penn State’s Graduate Exhibition helped him articulate his research en route to the top prize.

“What really sets you apart to get the gold is being able to take your science and communicate it in 10 minutes to someone who absolutely doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” said Al Balushi. “I think that is what makes someone successful. Everyone is always doing something interesting. But how do you connect that to the people? That’s the most important thing.”

According to MRS, the awards honor and encourage graduate students whose academic achievements and current materials research display a high order of excellence and distinction. MRS seeks to recognize students of exceptional ability who show promise for future substantial achievement in materials research.

Zakaria received his Bachelor of Science with honors in 2011 and Master of Science in 2012, both in engineering science and mechanics at Penn State. He conducted this research under the guidance of Joan Redwing, professor of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering, and Joshua Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering.

Penn State Sloan Scholars receive funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which provides funding for underrepresented students to pursue doctorates in mathematics, science and engineering.

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Last Updated March 16, 2017