Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers from across the greater NYC area to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotechnology scene. Today we sit down with Dr. Yuan Xue, a Staff Scientist at the ThINC (Thermomechanical & Imaging Nanoscale Characterization) Core Facility of the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC) located at Stony Brook University.
Tell us a little bit about where you are from.
I’m from a city called Pingdingshan in central China. In Chinese, Pingdingshan means “a mountain with a flat top”. When I was little, one of our frequent family weekend getaways has been a trail with ~1000 staircases built on that mountain. Pingdingshan also has an ancient name called Yingcheng, which means “the eagle city”. This name was used more than two thousand years ago when it was a small country, rules by the royal name Ying.
Pingdingshan has extensive mineral resources and is a small city in China where the pace of life there is slow and peaceful. We have farmlands, mountains, and hot springs. I’ve always loved our family trips to the mountains for sightseeing and delicious local foods, followed by relaxation at the hot springs.
Tell us about your experience of working as a staff scientist at ThINC Core Facility. How did you decide to choose this career trajectory?
I started working with ThINC when I was a graduate student. At first, I was sending in samples for my own experiments. Since ThINC has instrumentation that was critical for my Ph.D. research, I quickly become a frequent visitor and got the chance to become a trained user, which eventually lead me to work here.
I love performing experiments. My mother is a middle school physics teacher, and since I was young, she taught me how to perform simple experiments. The hands-on experience, the delicate steps (for a first grader) to carry out, and the parameters to play with, all of this fascinates me to this day. Thus, when I received training from Dr. Simon Chang, I expressed my interest and he not only trained me for standard operations but also taught me the principle theory and design behind all the instruments. I am really appreciative of the mentoring Dr. Chang provided me and through these intensive sessions, I learned how much potential an instrument could have.
When I was graduating, the staff scientist position opened up at ThINC and I jumped on the opportunity. I have had the opportunity to work with researchers from different fields and industries throughout graduate school and now. This has further broadened my understanding and interest in instrumentation science.
Tell us more about your educational journey. Where did you complete your undergraduate and graduate degrees? What was your particular graduate research on? What are some potential applications of your research?
I did my undergrad at Nanjing University of Science and Technology where I majored in Wielding Engineering. Through this discipline, I was introduced to the fascinating concept of structure-property relationships in materials, i.e. how properties of materials could have a huge impact on mechanical properties and thereby materials design, and vice versa. This led me to take a step further and I came to the US to study mechanical engineering and received my master’s degree at Stevens Institute of Technology. Then I went to Stony Brook University and received my Ph.D. in Materials Science and Chemical Engineering, where I carried out research on polymeric materials and their nanocomposites.
The overarching goal of my Ph.D. research was to design biodegradable flame retardant polymer composites and blends with desired physical properties through polymer interface/surface engineering. Comparing to one component flame retardant polymers, multi-component systems show excellent physical and/or chemical properties that couldn’t be reached by either component alone. It’s also cost-efficient and could be applied to recycled polymeric materials. Through surface/interface engineering, polymers and polymer composites can be designed with desired properties at a lower cost. My research has practical applications in industrial flame retardant polymer composite design, and potentially broadens the usage of recycled polymers. For example, I’ve developed an innovative approach to minimize the content of flame retardant fillers in Ethylene-vinyl Acetate matrix, with desired flame-retardant and mechanical properties that can be applied as cable sheathing.
Has COVID-19 affected how you do science? Has this experience surprised you in any positive way?
COVID has definitely made many things more complicated, and several activities take much longer, especially when the research involves collaboration. With many people working remotely, virtual meetings have become a significant part of our work. Like many people, I might have gone through the “Zoom fatigue” phase but Zoom feels like a new norm of our life.
One thing I have learned from virtual meetings is that I need to work on my communication skills for efficient and precise conversations. Of course, they are important for face-to-face conversations as well, but without the help of facial expressions, eye contact and hand/body gestures, it is harder to catch people’s attention. Hopefully, I am making progress in every meeting.
What do you do for fun outside of your work?
Crafting, reading books, watching shows, and working out with my cat. I love to travel so when it’s safe enough, I am looking forward to traveling again.
If you could go back in time, what advice will you give to your younger self?
You can do it, and please take polymer chemistry!