Reinventing old tricks with new light

Alyssa Miller and Elizabeth Polsdofer

Sometimes finding the solutions to problems come about in ways that are considered unconventional or unexpected. For Krishna Rajan, professor of materials science and engineering and U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory associate, the focus of research is not necessarily to gain knowledge on material sciences and engineering but to understand what information he does not know.

“How do we know we’ve got the right information? In fact what I always tell people is our actual research isn’t so much discovering new materials but figuring out what pieces of information we need to solve that problem,” Rajan said. “That doesn’t sound as glamorous as saying, I’ve got a new magic material for some application, but in the trenches that’s really what we’re doing.”

Kristen Constant, professor and chairwoman of materials science and engineering and DOE Ames Laboratory associate, said that while not everyone may understand what it is Rajan does exactly, several scientists benefit from Rajan’s research.

“We have a lot of data on various characteristics of materials, but it can be very complex to try to put them all together, to sort of understand where interesting materials might lie,” Constant said. “So what he does is take that complex data and indicate to the experimentalists, the right places to look for interesting material properties, interesting materials performance characteristics.”

Rajan said that he is not using techniques that are new or particularly revolutionary. However, what is new and revolutionary about the research Rajan is performing is the ways that he uses traditional methods to shed new light on old problems.

“I’m taking advantage of tools that have been around for a long time, but I think we’ve learned how to take these tools and integrate them in a meaningful way,” Rajan said. “That’s the trick. People have known these tools. Mathematics have been around for a long time. The question is how do you apply it in a meaningful way to the problems that we’re talking about in materials science.”

Through his research Rajan has helped scientists work both harder and smarter in discovering new materials. In a nutshell Rajan cannot tell a scientist how to fix a problem but where they should look for a new solution.

“He’s helped people be a lot more efficient … that means to take the data that we have and with his methods manipulate it such that it indicates where those likely areas are for interesting materials. It’s made people more efficient,” Constant said. “It has probably accelerated the discovery of new materials. That’s his whole goal.”

What makes sets the research Rajan works on break away from the traditional definition of an “ivory tower,” or research for research sake, is the ability of the research to translate to other scientific disciplines. Currently, Rajan is applying his research to areas that are agriculturally-related.

“He is always looking for other ideas, other people to collaborate with because I think he’s just very intellectually curious,” Constant said. “So he loves the idea, I think, of applying these methods to something that’s really far removed from material sciences.”

Despite his noncookie-cutter way of approaching research, Rajan is making an impact on traditional scientific research.

“Over time, people know what’s going to happen or sometimes people find things unexpectedly and then you begin to realize that other things play a role,” Rajan said. “Our logic is that we’re not throwing away our lifetime knowledge of science, but if we want to move faster, how do we do it?”