Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sharon Koh - JMU Physics Alumnus of the Year

    On Friday, October 31 we were visited by the JMU Physics Alumnus of the Year, Sharon Koh. She spent the afternoon with faculty members, touring the department, and then she gave a seminar talk to the junior and senior physics majors discussing the work she’s done since graduating from JMU. After her talk, I was fortunate enough to sit with her for a few m
inutes and ask her a few questions to share with our readers. Below is a transcription of our conversation:

Can you start by giving us a brief outline from the time of your work at JMU until the present?

I got my Bachelor’s from JMU in 2002. I double majored in Chemistry and Physics and I double minored in Material Science and Mathematics. I went to Northwestern for grad school and finished that in 2007. My PhD was in Chemistry with a focus on materials chemistry; I worked with Tobin Marks and Mark Ratner. From there I went to Milliken and worked 6 years in industry, and now I’m at the Naval Research Laboratory as an ASEE postdoctoral fellow.

What would you say is your favorite project that you worked on?

That’s kind of a difficult question. Nobody’s asked me that before. When I was at Northwestern, probably the most interesting thing to me was the band structure stuff that I did just because nobody had ever done it before. So it was a good challenge that actually panned out. When we initially did it, we saw flat bands and we thought, “Okay, this isn’t interesting, we can’t publish this.” But then we were able to digress from there and, because we were creative enough and came up with different areas and reciprocal space to study, we actually were able to make the band structures turn into something that was useful and productive.
At Milliken, the carpet-printing project was probably the most interesting project because I was project manager, but I was involved in some of the science even though I wasn’t the engineer. I was doing manual work with the rest of the guys, putting those bars up in the plant when we went to commercialize, so we basically took it all the way from a prototype that was 1.5 inches all the way to 168 inches in a year and a half. They originally wanted us to do it in less than that; they’d given us 8 months originally. We could have done it, but there would have been a lot of flaws. We finally convinced them that we needed a little extra time. After we converted that broad loom machine I moved on to my other projects, but the rest of the engineers stayed on and ended up converting some tile machines over because they were so happy with the results, so it was a good success story. Also, because of that, we bought some equipment for the machine shop as well that they hadn’t had before, and because it was such a success on the broad loom, they ended up upgrading that machine to something bigger that could do more, which was a good capability for the company.

How long have you been at the Naval Research Laboratory and what have you been working on?

I’ve been there since December, so almost a year. I’m looking at decomposition of energetic materials; specifically we’re looking at nitromines and RDX materials. In the literature for the last 30-40-50 years, it’s been a known compound, but still, people don’t know how it works, because it’s so dangerous and the nature of how something like that detonates is so quick, it’s hard to have instrumentation to capture what’s going on. Experimentally is sometimes the best way to capture things, but if you can’t capture it experimentally, you have to develop models to better understand them. So that’s what we’re working on.

What was it like to go from carpets to explosives?

It was very different – it was interesting to read about them though. It is definitely interesting literature. Always when you start a new research project, what you end up doing is reading. Because you’re in a new area, you have to understand what’s already been done; you don’t want to start blindly, and so you end up reading a lot of papers, especially the first two weeks you’re on any new project. It was definitely interesting to see what other people had said about these energetic materials, and what’s even kind of scary is how all over the board the literature is about these materials. There’ve been so many studies out there, and almost everything gets published because nobody really knows what goes on, and that’s scary. I think now it’s starting to get to the point where people are starting to understand a little better and they’re starting to narrow down what gets published, so we’ll see what we can contribute to that.

 - Keely Criddle
JMuse Cafe/Physics & Astronomy Blogger