Young Electrical Engineer Honored for Research

When Adrienne Stiff-Roberts decided during her high school career that she wanted to be a scientist, and then an engineer, she didn’t know that she’d end up manipulating the exotic properties of quantum mechanics to perfect devices ranging from infrared cameras to solar cells.

It’s not surprising that the daughter of a father who taught mathematics would gravitate toward a career in academia in a science so dependent on numbers.

“The first time I first became serious about science was during a physics class in the 11th grade,” Stiff-Roberts recalls. “It turned out to be my favorite class – I so much enjoyed understanding how the world around me works. Discovering new knowledge and ideas in labs, lectures and classes resonated deeply with me. I decided then to go into academics.”

The engineering bug bit later, in her senior year. The rest, as they say, is history.stiff_roberts_small.jpg

Born in Durham and raised in nearby Raleigh, Stiff-Roberts continued the pursuit of understanding how the world works, both from the practical and theoretical sides. After high school, she entered a dual degree program in Atlanta, and after five years, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering (highest honors) from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a bachelor’s of science degree in physics (summa cum laude) from Seplman College.

Since joining the Duke faculty in 2004 as an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Stiff-Roberts has combined this passion for physics and engineering to better understand the sub-atomic quantum world, governed by its own often counter-intuitive laws, and to harness its great potential.

So far, the efforts of her laboratory have made significant advances in combining the quantum and practical worlds.

In recognition of the accomplishments of her young academic career, Stiff-Roberts has been named the winner of the 2009 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Early Career Award in Nanotechnology. She will officially receive the award during the ninth annual meeting of the IEEE Conference on Nanotechnology this July in Genoa, Italy.

She was cited by the Nanotechnology Council for her “contributions to the development of nanoscale quantum dots for infrared detection.”

In simple terms, quantum dots are like extremely tiny semiconductors that adhere to their own set of quantum rules. These dots are hundreds of times smaller than a sliver of a human hair -- six to 10 nanometers thick and 10 to 20 nanometers in diameter. Scientists have yet to figure out exactly how to make use of quantum dots’ seemingly limitless potential, but that is what particularly excites Stiff-Roberts.

“For me, the enjoyment I derive from science all boils down to figuring out practical applications of theoretical ideas,” she said. “In particular, I really enjoy using the principles of quantum mechanics to make better devices, such as sensors or detectors.”

She and her colleagues are involved in all phases of quantum dot development, including work with dots she creates herself, experimentation with commercially available dots, and the development of new techniques for building structures or devices that incorporate dots, such as infrared sensors.

In fact, Stiff-Roberts made her first major contribution to the field while earning a Ph.D. in applied physics at the University of Michigan, when she was the first to create an infrared detector using quantum dots that actually produced images.

One of the main goals of her current work with quantum dots is designing a sensor that responds to specific bands of infrared light. Targets include those wavelengths that are not absorbed by water and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which allows sensors to gather images on cloudy days.

The military also has a keen interest in this technology, so she is also pursuing wavelengths that can travel through smoke without significant absorption, which opens the possibility of clear imaging of battlefield action. There is also potential for using infrared detection in everything from medical scanning, space science and atmospheric monitoring.

“For me, the satisfaction comes from using quantum mechanics to make devices better – it’s that simple,” Stiff-Roberts said. “It’s the combination of applied and basic sciences.”