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Physicist shares her CAREER accomplishments

Experimental observation of a "trapped rainbow."
Experimental observation of a "trapped rainbow."

The National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, is one of the nation's most prestigious honors directed toward young faculty. The five-year grant provides a great boost to faculty in establishing integrated research and educational activities while supporting high-quality research and novel education initiatives. Selected in 2004 as a CAREER award recipient in support of her project, “Photoinduced Nanostructures in Manganese Oxides,” Associate Professor Vera Smolyaninova, Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences,” shared her accomplishments over the past five years of her CAREER.

Investigation of novel photonic materials is crucial for the development of optical signal processing and memory devices. Thin films of manganese oxides studied in this project drastically change their properties under illumination. Illuminated material reflects light and conducts electric current differently. Moreover, after illumination, tiny (less than a micrometer size) regions with different properties can coexist in this material. Therefore this material is very promising for photonic device applications. 

Another class of photonic materials which interests Smolyaninova is metamaterials, or exotic composite materials not easily found in nature.   Devices made of metamaterials can ”slow” or “trap” light inside narrow channels called waveguides. Light is trapped within these structures because “components” of light cannot pass through an opening that is narrower than its wavelength. Moreover, different colors are trapped in different locations inside the device, creating a “trapped rainbow.” Theory of the trapped rainbow devices was first articulated by Ortwin Hess of the University of Surrey in Guilford, U.K. Smolyaninova and her collaborators created a waveguide with such properties utilizing a tiny lens and a glass slide which were coated with a film of gold. When a laser was shined into the waveguide’s open end, it was observed that visible light at its varying wavelengths (or colors) was contained along the narrowing taper as the aperture became too small for the light wave to pass through. By using gold-based metamaterials , she succeeded in “trapping a rainbow,” thereby validating Hess’ theoretical prediction which had never before been proven outside of numerical models. Similar device geometry was also used to demonstrate optical cloaking.

Outside of making ground breaking discoveries, Smolyaninova has been working to promote student achievement and learning in physics, an often intimidating science subject for many. Undergraduates supported by the grant participated in design of experimental setups and development of data acquisition software supporting data measurement and analysis. Smolyaninova is proud of the many student accomplishments in research presentations and publications, adding that two publications with six undergraduate co-authors were highlighted at the Council for Undergraduate Research website, a prestigious honor considering only 12 student publications in physics are featured annually.  “It was very exciting to work on this project with my students and collaborators.  I am happy that through research I was able to enhance the educational experience of my students,” she says.

With a goal to attract students and broaden participation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Smolyaninova organized annual science field trips for Mercy High School girls, participated as a mentor scientist in the Academy for Applied Science Intern Program, offered workshops at Towson’s Sally Ride Science Festival, and provided a year-long internship to a Randallstown High School student. 

With her CAREER grant concluding next year, Smolyaninova is seeking additional external funding opportunities to continue her research in the area of photonic materials. She is thankful for the enormous support provided by her colleagues and collaborators and hopes to continue the mission of research, service and outreach at TU.

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