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Receiving NSF CAREER Award, Seo Will Enhance Physics Research and Education

By Whitney Harder

(Aug. 12, 2015) — Sung S. Ambrose Seo, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kentucky, has received the prestigious five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award totaling $672,981.

The CAREER award is given in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of the university.

Funds from the award will allow Seo to investigate iridium oxides and unveil exotic collective phenomena, such as nontrivial topological states that are latent in bulk crystals, but emerge in dimensionally confined superlattices.

"My research is like building atomic-scale LEGO blocks to study their physical properties," Seo said. "These 'atomic LEGO blocks' will be used in future electronic devices, which cannot be achieved by current semiconductor-based technology."

The outcome of his project, "Two-Dimensional Superlattices of Epitaxial Pyrochlore Iridates," will fill existing gaps between physics theories and experiments, and lead scientists to an innovative, fundamental understanding of strongly correlated, spin-orbit coupled electrons in low-dimensional materials.

Another important component of the project is its impact on UK undergraduate and graduate students.

"In the United States, we are in dire need of physicists with strong expertise in materials synthesis and characterization, for both academia and industry," Seo said.

Participating graduate students will receive training in state-of-the-art materials synthesis and characterization, as well as opportunities to collaborate with scientists at national labs.

Beyond that, Seo and his team will also improve the physics curriculum at UK by developing an applied materials physics course, available to both graduate and undergraduate students and aimed at integrating cutting-edge materials research topics with basic physics coursework. Focused on raising awareness of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers in underrepresented areas, Seo is also developing an NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program for pre-service teachers.

Since he joined UK as an assistant professor of physics in 2010, Seo has been focusing on building a state-of-the-art laboratory for epitaxial materials syntheses and characterizations. Recently, he and his team have successfully carried out challenging research of various iridium oxide thin-films by using their unique techniques of multiple in-situ characterizations.

He credits several pilot grants from the Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation in allowing him to "tackle the more challenging, and very exciting, project of iridium oxide superlattices with this NSF CAREER grant."

Seo's long-term goal is to develop functionally integrated, rationally designed heterostructures using novel electronic materials such as complex oxides.

"This NSF CAREER grant will allow us to run a highly competitive research program on new material systems, and to advance that long-term goal," he said.