How a Materials Scientist Steps Out Of His Comfort Zone by Conducting Diverse Research Projects In a User Facility at NCSU

By Ben Crnic

Chung with one of the three X-ray diffractometers at AIF

Ching-Chang (“BB”) Chung, a 2014 alumnus of UConn’s doctoral program in Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), recently became a laboratory manager at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in the Analytical Instrumentation Facility (AIF). As lab manager, Dr. Chung manages X-ray diffraction (XRD) and micro/nano-CT laboratories. He also trains students on the instruments in the lab and assists them with their research, allowing him to work on a wide variety of materials with researchers from diverse fields.

Since Chung is exposed to a wide array of research topics, he constantly learns about new materials. Since becoming lab manager, he has worked with materials ranging from semiconductor thin films to insects.

“On a lucky day, I could be characterizing the crystallinity of polymer fibers in the morning and working on CT imaging of a dinosaur fossil in the afternoon,” said Chung.

Dr. Chung notes that transitioning from researcher to lab manager certainly had its challenges. Because he is often involved in fields that are completely outside his background, Chung struggled at first with tackling problems in areas of materials research with which he was unfamiliar.

“In the beginning it was very challenging, but with the accumulation of experience, I have become more confident with different materials,” he said.

Chung also enjoys the networking opportunities that his exposure to a diverse range of research projects affords him. He collaborates with researchers from across the globe, many of whom he now regards as friends.

Chung describes his work as “a perfect way to build a strong international network.”

As lab manager, Chung doesn’t only learn about new materials. He also teaches researchers about how to work with their materials.

“It is fairly important to help people, especially those without an engineering background, to understand the principles of XRD and micro-CT, the limits of their materials and what their data means, etc.” said Chung.

Of course, explaining the theoretical underpinnings of XRD and micro-CT to those with no materials science and engineering background is no easy task. Since only a certain number of researchers who use his lab have such background, Chung is constantly trying to improve the way he explains the applications of these techniques.

Chung typically spends half of his day in the laboratory interacting with researchers and explaining to them how to use the XRD equipment. He also helps them design their experiments and perform measurements, and even assists them in interpreting their results. He devotes the rest of his time to his own research and collaborative projects.  Much of this research focuses on functional oxides, especially ferroelectrics. Eventually though, Chung wants to shift about 50 percent of his research to the applications of XRD and micro-CT analytical methods to other materials.

During his time at UConn as a graduate student, Chung’s research also focused on ferroelectrics, but he also had a passion for materials characterization. Since UConn’s MSE faculty are well known for their research on both ferroelectrics and analytical materials characterization techniques, UConn was a natural fit for Chung when the time came to select a graduate school. He ultimately chose UConn because of the active research environment, as well as because of its beautiful campus.

Chung believes that he learned many important skills at UConn.

 “Aside from the knowledge and technical skills I obtained during my Ph.D. training, the most important transferable skills that I gained that helped me transition to the real world were critical thinking and problem solving,” Chung said.

He also benefited from his experiences as a teaching assistant. Indeed, teaching is an important aspect of his duties in his current position.

Chung still keeps in touch with his UConn mentors, especially his dissertation advisor, MSE Associate Department Head George Rossetti

 “So many years after, we still keep in close contact with each other and continue to collaborate on research projects,” said Chung.

After graduating from UConn, Chung joined the research group of Professor Jacob Jones , who directs the AIF at NCSU, and was one of Rossetti’s research collaborators at the time.

“BB’s doctoral dissertation research work was especially challenging, involving ceramic processing, analytical characterization, electrical property measurements and the phenomenological theory of ferroelectric materials,” said Rossetti.  “Given that BB excelled in each of these areas, it was no surprise that he was immediately snapped up for a post-doctoral position in Professor Jones’ group at NCSU.”

At first, Chung spent half of his time as a postdoc in Jones’s lab, and the other half at AIF managing the lab. Working with Jones exposed Chung to a wide range of research projects and expanded his professional network.

Chung’s decision to stay at NCSU was motivated by the school’s research opportunities. NCSU has an excellent School of Engineering and research there is only expected to grow. Yet, Chung still looks back fondly on his days at UConn. He even has advice for future students:

“Find out what you want to do with your MS/Ph.D. degree early on at graduate school and have a plan in mind as to how to get there.”

Chung also believes that students should take advantage of the many resources UConn provides and attend career fairs to make important connections.

“Reach out to alumni, network and talk to people that hold positions that you might be interested in, ask about their career pathways,” Chung said.

As for the future, Chung wants to stay involved in many different research projects and to continue learning new characterization techniques.

“Working with broad research topics will push me out of my comfort zone and diversify my knowledge and analytical skill set.”

He doesn’t have a specific position at NCSU that he is working towards.

“Rather than aiming for a job title that sounds impressive, I am more interested in the science itself,” said Chung.

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