Theyâ€™re young, theyâ€™re smart and theyâ€™re at the forefront of their fields. And now UC Santa Barbara professors Michelle Oâ€™Malley and Andrea Young are among Science Newsâ€™s 2019 SN10: Scientists to Watch.
Presented by the Society for Science & the Public, the annual list highlights early- and mid-career scientists tackling todayâ€™s big questions, with the potential for tomorrowâ€™s big breakthroughs.
â€œCongratulations to all the scientists and engineers named to this prestigious list!â€� said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. â€œThese amazing women and men are making ground-breaking discoveries. I am delighted that Science News is able to honor them.â€�
From Plant Waste to Commodity Chemicals
Michelle O’Malley. Photo by Sonia Fernandez
To find renewable sources for the many commodity chemicals we need to run our modern lives, Michelle Oâ€™Malley, a professor of chemical engineering, looked no further than the guts of large herbivores. There, she said, â€œthousands of unusual anaerobes work together to break down plant biomass into nutrients for the animal.â€� Tapping into the processes these anaerobes have evolved to perform as they extract sugars from plant waste could make it possible to generate material for biofuels, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, which are otherwise extracted from nonrenewable sources.
â€œI think the most fascinating research happens at the intersection of different disciplines,â€� Oâ€™Malley said. Though trained as a chemical engineer, Oâ€™Malley spent much of her earliest research immersed in microbiology. That was around the time genetic sequencing became accessible and inexpensive, giving her the tools to explore â€œnon-modelâ€� microbes â€œthat nature had already evolved to do some fantastic chemistry.â€�
â€œWeâ€™re extremely proud of Michelle Oâ€™Malley for being named to the highly selective list of just 10 Science News Scientists to Watch from across the nation,â€� said Rod Alferness, dean of the UCSB College of Engineering. â€œThis is the latest in a string of prestigious awards and notices Michelle has earned recently recognizing the importance of her groundbreaking research. We are, of course, delighted and proud that she is part of the College of Engineering family and know that great things lie ahead for her.â€�
Said Oâ€™Malley, â€œI am honored to be recognized by Science News as a Scientist to Watch. This is a testament to the creative, hard work of my research group and trainees throughout the years, without which none of this would be possible.â€�
Exploring the 2D Universe
Andrea Young. Photo by Sonia Fernandez
Due to its its strength, conductive and electronic properties and its peculiar physics, graphene â€” the transparent, atom-thick allotrope of carbon â€” has been called todayâ€™s wonder material.
â€œThese (graphene systems) give you incredible control over subtle states of matter,â€� said Andrea Young, a condensed matter physicist. â€œYou can start with pencil lead and a blank chip, and with minimal equipment build a bizarre, two-dimensional universe where the laws of physics are quite different than our 3D world.â€�
It was, in fact, this fascination with grapheneâ€™s 2D physics that led to Youngâ€™s co-invention of van der Waals heterostructures â€” named for the weak, distance-dependent forces between atoms of stacked 2D materials. These heterostructures have since opened up new fields of research for scientists everywhere, from those diving into 2D physics to others interested in the uses and applications of graphene. Youngâ€™s own research has resulted in the discovery of new quantum Hall phases, and he continues to study the electronic properties of nano-fabricated quantum materials, which have the potential to open up new physics and serve as the foundation for tomorrowâ€™s technologies.
â€œWe are proud of Andrea Youngâ€™s continued success, though not at all surprised that this creative and talented scientist is once again being recognized for his prolific and important work,â€� said Pierre Wiltzius, dean of mathematical, life and physical sciences in the College of Letters and Science. â€œHis research in the area of exotic properties of materials holds great promise for breakthroughs in quantum science and engineering. He truly is a leader in his field.â€�
â€œIâ€™m very grateful for the recognition from Science News,â€� Young said, â€œand even more grateful to my hardworking students who make the lab run â€” I wouldnâ€™t be anywhere without them.â€�