Mikkelsen Named 2016 Cottrell Scholar

Maiken H. Mikkelsen, the Nortel Networks Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and assistant professor of physics at Duke University, has been named a 2016 Cottrell Scholar in physics. The Cottrell Scholar program develops outstanding teacher-scholars who are recognized by their scientific communities for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their academic leadership skills.

The award comes with a research and education stipend of $100,000 and also support to attend bi-annual networking meetings, providing an opportunity to share insights and expertise and foster synergy among faculty nationwide.

The grant will support Mikkelsen in her efforts to design and chemically construct new nanoscale materials with unusual, exciting optical properties. She aims to work with composite material structures consisting of components of only 10 nanometers—about the size of 20 silicon atoms.

Her work will focus on light-matter interactions in novel semiconductor nanostructures manufactured in the Duke clean room. By exploring how traditional semiconductors can be made to behave in new ways by embedding them in precisely designed nanoscale structures, Mikkelsen will effectively create new hybrid materials with tailored properties.

The approach involves trapping and squeezing light into nanometer-sized gaps between a metal nanocube and a metal surface, a structure she calls a “nanopatch antenna.” Semiconductors placed in this gap are energized by the intensified light, causing them to emit light more than 1,000 times faster, with higher efficiency and in the desired directions.

The intensified light produced in the nanopatch antenna is so energetic that scientists describe it as a “quantum plasma oscillation,” which, in their calculations, they treat more or less as they would other subatomic particles. Thus, they call these plasma oscillations “quasiparticles.”

“This process,” Mikkelsen said, “enables novel optical properties to occur which are vastly different from naturally occurring materials. Building upon this allows for a new class of hybrid materials to be created with finely-tuned optical properties.” Her work could one day lead to more efficient LED bulbs, better TVs and more efficient solar-electric power.

For the educational component of the Cottrell Scholar Award, Mikkelsen aims to create new and interactive teaching techniques in undergraduate courses while enhancing diversity in physics. And through these initiatives, she hopes to address the shrinking pipeline of students choosing careers in the sciences.

“I will create opportunities for undergraduate students to develop creative and independent thinking through a new interactive undergraduate course on ‘Physics of Semiconductor Nanostructures,’ new modules for the introductory ‘Quantum Mechanics’ course, and independent research opportunities,” she said.

“Cottrell Scholars are provided with unique opportunities to launch and establish truly outstanding careers,” said RCSA President Robert Shelton. “In addition to receiving financial support for research, Scholars belong to a community whose members help each other to develop the skills and relationships necessary to become academic leaders.”