Mark Jarrell Receives Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Research
Date: May 14, 2002
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos by Lisa Ventre
One of the first things you learn in a basic physics course is that the electrons in an atom are the "movers and shakers," while the neutrons and protons stay clustered together in the nucleus.
Mark Jarrell, winner of the 2002 Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research, is a lot like the electrons he studies - always on the move...always looking for new ways to interact with colleagues and disciplines far removed from basic physics. But unlike most electrons, he's always at a high-energy state.
"Mark has made a lasting impact on the department," wrote physics department head Frank Pinski in a letter of support. "His enthusiasm and boundless energy have been his trademarks during his entire career. He attacks his research, his teaching and his mentoring with a vitality and ingenuity that is unmatched in the department."
If you ask Jarrell what he does for a living, he'll explain that he's a computational theoretical condensed matter physicist, interested in strongly correlated electronic materials. Don't worry if you can't follow that completely. Jarrell laughingly admits the best thing about his field of research is no one is quite sure what's going on.
"It's incredibly challenging. We don't know how to think, and we have to develop ways of understanding ... new ways of thinking."
Jarrell is interested in the tiniest of materials from DNA to superconductors and computer chips. The problem is, these tiny or nanoscale systems, don't follow the rules of classical physics.
"We have a crisis coming about in our science, because things keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Twenty years from now, the whole basis on which we build a computer is going to have to change fundamentally. The transistors and the chip are going to have to be much, much smaller. We might not even have transistors. We might not even have chips. It's changing, and it's changing fast."
Jarrell and his colleagues rely on quantum physics to try to explain the behavior of electrons in these important materials. If they can crack the case, your current computer will end up looking a lot like the electronic version of a Model-T Ford.
But to understand the materials and build new exotic ones like carbon nanotubes, you have to understand the interaction of the electrons. That's what Jarrell does best. He's developed a number of computational methods used by scientists and engineers worldwide.
"These methods have earned him a very strong international reputation due to their impact and wide use in the condensed matter physics community," wrote Fu-Chun Zhang, UC professor of physics. "Although Mark is quite young, he has demonstrated continued creativity over the past decade and has brought recognition of our institute in the world."
"The range and number of studies he has completed over the past 10 years is exceptional," added J.E. Gubernatis of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Variety is important to Jarrell -- the spice of his professional life. "The next big problems in physics aren't really in physics. They're interdisciplinary. The whole taxonomy...the whole classification system for sciences is breaking down. We're doing things which are partially physics, partially chemistry, partially mathematics..."
At home, the spices are the hottest ones he can find. Jarrell is also an accomplished cook who tries to learn a new cuisine every few years. He's been through spicy Thai and Cajun and a variety of Chinese cuisines so far. You'll even find a bottle of hot sauce sitting right on his desk and Cajun spices next to the tea bags on the bookshelf.
"I just love to cook," said Jarrell. "It's really creative, and it's really very different from physics. When I cook, I never really measure anything."
His appetite for new discoveries is what drives him to reach out to new colleagues. Jarrell is part of a growing community of researchers working with Quantum Monte Carlo methods. This appetite has led to ongoing discussions and collaborations with UC chemist Thomas Beck and Jarrell's first forays into DNA research and biophysics.
"He's a world class scientists in all respects," wrote Beck. "His enthusiasm goes into his teaching as well, and he has developed innovative web-based courses which the students have enjoyed a great deal."
Jarrell agrees he's highly motivated in the classroom and couldn't imagine working in a lab where he didn't have students to mentor. "I want to keep the teaching. The students keep you sharp. There's something about students that keeps you on your toes."
In return, Jarrell looks for the newest and best methods to teach his students about the rapidly changing field of physics. His graduate students all learn parallel processing, used by the fastest supercomputers in the world, and undergraduates crank out their coursework on computers as well.
"My students use simulations to solve problems. It's a more modern approach. If we're still teaching the 19th-century physics, we're not doing a good service to our students. We need to teach them how people attack these problems now, which is often with a computer or computer-aided algebra."
A bit tired keeping up with the effervescent Dr. Jarrell? You shouldn't be. Here's your second physics lesson of the day: A body in motion tends to stay in motion -- classic physics and classic Mark Jarrell.
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