Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers from across the city to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotechnology scene. Today we sit down with Francesco Lavini, a 3rd year PhD student in the Physics Department at New York University (NYU).
Tell us a little bit about where you are from.
I was born and raised in Rome, the capital city of Italy. I guess there's little I need to say about why it may be famous. You know, the Roman Empire, the Colosseum, the Vatican, countless churches and historical attractions, and so on. Not a big deal, really. I'm very proud of my origins and my city, as any other authentic Roman would point out.
Where did you complete your undergraduate and any graduate degrees prior to this one? (Tell me the name, where it was, what you studied.)
I earned both my Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and my Master’s degree in Nanotechnology Engineering at La Sapienza, University of Rome, one of the largest university in Europe and one of the oldest in the entire world.
You spent some time at Oak Ridge National Labs, what was that like?
In the framework of my Master’s degree thesis project, I had the chance to spend 6 months working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in Tennessee, and in particular with Prof. Kalinin’s research group at the Center for Nanophase Material Sciences (CNMS), and all its talented people. My research focused on the local electrochemical oxidation of superconductor films and heterostructures. It was my first, real, hands-on research experience and, together with the moving to the US, it turned out to be quite a big upheaval. During those months I grew incredibly both on a professional and personal level, expanding my technical knowledge and making my goals more clear. I started to think about scientific research, too frequently neglected in my home country, as a viable future path and for the first time, about joining a PhD program. Living in neighboring Knoxville, I also got a taste of the typical American college life. I experienced all its cliché situations, made lots of friends, everything tied up with plenty of unique adventures. As I said before, quite an upheaval.
How was your transition from Italy to NYC? (Easy, hard, fun, not much of a change, etc. and what made it that way?)
During my time in Tennessee, I traveled quite often to NYC, developing time after time a deeper connection with the city. I realized I was falling deeply in love with its vibe, its landscapes, its people, and that I would have tried anything to live there. That is why, after I came back to Italy to graduate, and receiving an offer for a PhD position in NYC, it looked like my perfect life achievement. I know that NYC can be merciless sometimes, with its relentless pace and day-to-day challenges. I know that some of my peers struggled to adapt to such a complex and tough reality. But this is where I feel I belong in this stage of my life. New York still amazes me as much as the first day I came here, a long time ago now. It keeps me alive. Moving here was my everlasting declaration of love for NYC.
What group are you in and what is your particular research on?
I work as an experimentalist in Prof. Elisa Riedo's lab (PicofroceLab). Our research mainly focuses on Nanolitography, Nanomechanics and on the characterization and manipulation of 2D Materials at the atomic scale. After a first project studying the frictional behavior of MoS2, a 2D solid lubricant, I'm currently exploring the mechanical properties of epitaxial graphene, by the use of high resolution nanoindentation and Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) techniques. We are trying to understand and stabilize a particular transformation we experimentally observed on graphene, that brings this interesting material to an ultra-hard phase, stiffer than diamond. We call this new phase "diamene".
What is your current status as a graduate student?
I'm currently in my 3rd year of PhD program in Physics at the New York University (NYU), with focus on Nanotechnology and Material Science. My PI, her research lab and I recently moved here from the City University of New York (CUNY), where I first started my program working at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC). Lots of acronyms, I know.
What are some of the difficulties and/or good things about having your PI change universities?
A job transfer is never a smooth affair. Each PhD program and each specific university has its own criteria and milestones. That's why, after two years at CUNY, the transfer to NYU may have extended the end of my PhD program. But I'm aware of how important this opportunity can be for me and my career, given the prestige and the incredible resources of NYU, and I am extremely excited to face any new challenges coming with this change. An example? Moving the entire lab from one facility to the other, and disassembling and reassembling all the machineries, even if complicated, was a perfect exercise to learn something new and get some insight on how these machines are built.
Can you tell me about some potential future applications for your work?
My first project dealt with the study of 2D material frictional properties as a function of atomic thickness, which is relevant in applications such as composites, MEMS/NEMS and sensing, where the reduction of mechanical energy dissipation and structural thinness are desirable goals. The new, high-stiffness phase of graphene (diamene) instead could be potentially used to create ultra-light, ultra-hard coatings, for the most diverse applications, from devices, to vehicles and people. This novel property of graphene and the research on friction are just two examples of how important the fundamental study and characterization of mechanical properties of 2D materials is to open up unprecedented technological scenarios. In general, it is possible to raise the bar of devices' performances only through a knowledge of materials capabilities as accurate, reliable and exhaustive as possible.
How did you figure out you wanted to specialize in this area?
The idea of committing to scientific research made its way in my life little by little, and each step of my early career pushed me further towards this direction. Since I was a kid, I've been always fascinated by futuristic prototypes and groundbreaking technologies, by the idea of pursuing pioneering discoveries. And I think that at present Nanotechnology and Material Science are at the very frontier of the scientific inquiry. There is so much to be understood and modeled on how our world works at the nanoscale, and there is always need for pushing materials performances over the edge. As an experimentalist, the feeling of discovering something never seen before is just priceless.
You spent some time as a Nanofabrication Facility Marketing Intern at the CUNY ASRC as part of the NYCEDC Futureworks program. Can you tell us about experience with Futureworks?
Futureworks NYC is a NYCEDC project created to foster the development of manufacturer and tech businesses all across the NYC area, offering services and support both as an incubator and maker-spaces hub. The nanofabrication facility at the ASRC is one of these spaces, open to any type of research group, from industry, academia or start-up. Collaborating as a Marketing Intern I had the chance to organize several events, such as hands-on workshops or seminars and panel discussions, treating different topics around the process of design, realization and commercialization of technologies. These events aimed to advertise the Futureworks NYC project and the diverse possibilities offered by the facilities involved. Nanofabrication techniques training, application of advanced technologies to the fashion industry, and venture capital investments in nanotechnology companies are just few of the topic covered. On a personal point of view, it is a great opportunity to broaden my network and enrich my skillset with off-lab experiences, as much as to get in touch with the tech and start-up scene of NYC.
You were also very active with the CUNY Materials Science Society (MRS) University Chapter while at CUNY. Can you tell us about what the MRS Chapter does and why you participate in it?
I guess that this initiative, together with the Futureworks NYC experience, comes from my desire to get busy doing the more diverse activities. Together with some other CUNY fellows, as well as some of my best friends, we started the CUNY MRS University Organization, sponsored by an initiative of the Material Research Society (MRS), to serve as a connection between students involved in material research and the MRS national organization. Our group stimulates the meeting and communication among material researchers from all New York institutions, planning social gatherings, talks, seminars, site visits to lab and facilities, and other initiatives, encouraging people to share knowledge and interests. This particular experience and the people I worked with are one of the things I proudly bring along with me from my time at CUNY.
Where do you hope to take your career in the next 5 or 10 years?
I like the idea of keeping my hands busy with research. The ideal continuation of my career after the PhD would be in the R&D department of some companies preferably investing in cutting-edge materials development and engineering. I can't and don't want to forget about my Engineering background. I'd also hope to work on facilitating the commercialization of innovative discovers, closing the gap between lab research and the market.
What do you do for fun outside of your program?
I am a real keen traveler, eager reader, untiring stroller, music addicted, The Office expert, professional Sunday bruncher. I love to explore the city, craving for new experiences. There are so many things to do and see in NYC, one lifetime is not enough, and my bucket list keeps getting longer every week. I have apps on my phone to record restaurants and bars I need to try, others to keep me updated about the latest events, and necessarily others reminding me of my checking account balance.
If you could go back to the first day you started your graduate work and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
It would probably be something like: no matter how hard life can be, keep believing in yourself, in what you can do and in what you proved so far. If you don't do it in the first place, nobody else will. I wouldn't probably warn myself about any particular mistake I made. They are an indispensable part of the personal growth. Also, I really, really don't like spoilers, so….