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When you ThINC about it, collaboration is key


simon says

 Dr. Chung-Chueh Chang doesn’t have much time for science these days.

At least, not his own. As project director and instrumentation scientist for the Thermomechanical & Imaging Nanoscale Characterization (ThINC) facility at the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, Dr. Chang – “Simon” to friends and colleagues – is responsible for managing and maintaining ThINC’s state-of-the-art imaging tools, including some of science’s most advanced electron microscopes.

When the brightest of industry and academia come calling, those tools must be ready – and they are, thanks to Dr. Chang, who’s also willing and able to help those other researchers understand what the next-level technologies (and sometimes, their own discoveries) actually reveal.  This is especially critical in industry, as these researchers have limited budgets, limited time, and corporate expectations for timely success.

“My focus now is how to help the other researchers get more feedback and move forward with their projects,” he notes. “I don’t really have time to do my own research.”

And that’s all right with Dr. Chang, a big-picture type who earned his PhD in materials science at Stony Brook University and sees his ThINC duties as both a badge of honor and a terrific joy ride, stocked with next-gen toys like the Atomic Force Microscope, the Cryo-Focused Ion Beam-Scanning Electron Microscope and the right Dynamic Mechanical Analysis and Differential Scanning Calorimetry devices for just about any thermomechanical characterization and imaging challenge.

“My goal is not just to maintain them and operate them, but to understand the limits of the instruments,” Dr. Chang says. “To understand the principles of how they really work, so when a researcher comes to me, I can explain to them what instrument is the best choice … for the results they wish to get.”

The scientist’s personal expertise ranges from materials characterization and spectrum analysis to thermal mechanical characterization and thin-film analysis. Throw in copious experience with electromagnetic microscopic imaging, and he’s the ideal guide for researchers proposing research grants and industrial innovators exploring new characterization techniques.

And the right man to break the bad news when ambitious researchers hit a microscopic wall.

“Sometimes the result is not what they want,” Dr. Chang notes. “Some researchers don’t have a full understanding of what the instruments can do and what the acquired data really tells you.

“So, my role is to explain to the researcher the limits of the instrument – to explain what’s happening and help them find another way to develop adequate approach for their research.”

After all the sample preparations and unique characterizations and small steps and giant leaps toward individual scientific goals, that remains the true promise of both the AERTC and its core facility, says Dr. Chang, who’s spent nearly seven years at ThINC’s helm: Helping ambitious scientists discover “the correct path for their research” and driving that research towards success, whether that is the completion of a federally funded grant project or trying to understand the capabilities of a commercial product.  

“It’s a wonderful facility in that we can provide very useful results that researchers and prospective researchers are looking for,” he notes. “We have a wonderful staff and very professional consultants.

“(AERTC Chief Operating Officer) David Hamilton has a wonderful network with industry and is excellent at connecting people together,” Dr. Chang adds. “He guides people to me so I can answer their questions and integrates the network here to make the whole thing work.”

That’s a living, breathing example of the kind of collaboration to makes ThINC tick – and ultimately makes science and industry work, according to Dr. Chang. 

“Even ThINC doesn’t have every piece of equipment, so sometimes I have to direct [researchers] to other professors and other facilities,” he says. “This only expands our network and increases cooperation among different researchers.

“From my experience, all research has potential, and the more researchers you expose, the more potential it has,” Dr. Chang adds. “If everyone can work together, the research will only become easier.”