Prize-winning physicist explores new fields with a passion By David King, University Marketing
Little boys around the world share a lot of the same dreams: They want to grow up to be ballplayers or fire fighters or airline pilots.
Byounghak Lee, on the other hand, had a different idea. He wanted to be a physicist.
“I read this book when I was really young, 9 or 10 years old, about physics, particle physics,” he says. “It was totally fascinating. I thought ‘Wow, this is cool.’”
A couple dozen years later, Lee is a physicist — and an award-winning one at that. An assistant professor in the Department of Physics at Texas State, the 36-year-old native of South Korea was part of an interdisciplinary team that won the 2008 Gordon Bell Prize, one of the nation’s highest honors in computer science.
The seven-member team was recognized for developing a more-efficient method for computer simulations of the properties of nanostructures, collections of atoms that many believe hold the key to energy independence in the 21st century and beyond. Lee’s role in the project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was that of a physicist and a computer scientist. The team was made up of three physicists, two computer scientists and two mathematicians.
“There was a physics part, a mathematics part, a computer sciences part,” he says. “Eventually, what we were trying to do was physics.”
It succeeded, allowing the team to run a simulation at the mind-numbing speed of 442 trillion calculations per second. The computer application that the team designed will allow researchers to see how nanostructures — which rank in size between molecules and microscopic structures — could work in everything from internal medicine to fuel cells to solar-power generators.
A Miniature World of Science The study of nanostructures is what spurs that 9-year-old’s excitement that can still be heard in Lee’s voice as he explains one of the last frontiers of physics.
“There are two extremes in physics — one is very small, atoms and a very small number of atoms,” he says, holding his right hand far out to his right.
“And then there is the almost-infinite number of atoms in a system,” he adds, stretching his left hand far to his left.
“We understand both ends very well.”
Lee pauses for a moment.
“It’s in the middle” — and he nods toward the space between his hands — “that’s where we’re trying to attack. There are so many areas of possibility, you can’t think of every possible one.”
Lee’s research at Texas State involves building those nanostructures for the collection of solar energy.
“In our department, we have an experiment where we can grow materials with very, very good precision,” he says. “They grow the materials molecular layer by molecular layer. That opens the door to the developing of materials with the desired properties.”
The award-winning project at the Berkeley Lab involved simulating the construction process using powerful computer systems, and he approaches the problems involved with singular passion, one that is obvious to anyone who has worked with him.
“When you’re involved in cutting-edge research, it’s hard not to like it,” said Allan MacDonald, Lee’s faculty advisor on his doctorate from Indiana University and now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “He’s doing really cutting-edge stuff in several different directions.
“It’s just fun because you’re exploring new ideas. It’s not like you can look it up in a book — it isn’t in a book. It’s knowledge you create.”
Staying in Texas MacDonald said he wasn’t surprised at Lee’s success. He was impressed with him from their first meeting, during a weeklong seminar in South Korea while Lee was on furlough from his nation’s mandatory military service. MacDonald eventually invited Lee to join him in Bloomington, Indiana, to work on his doctorate.
When MacDonald moved to UT-Austin, Lee came with him to Central Texas to finish his degree. He had postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Illinois and the Berkeley Lab in California, but he missed Texas so much that he turned down offers to return to Korea to take a job at Texas State, where he has found a comfort zone.
“All the schools where I have been had large faculties, 70 or 80 faculty members,” he says. “There’s an intimacy here. We know everybody here in the department. And I like the fact that the department wants to grow.”
Professional growth is nothing new to Lee. From the time he read his first physics book as a child to his years as an undergraduate at Korea University, his main interest was the high-energy side of the science.
“It was particle physics, what happens when you collide small particles with high energy,” he says.
But his focus changed as his education progressed. When he was working on his doctorate with MacDonald, they were studying magnetic semiconductors, a lower-energy field in which progress was happening quickly. Since then, in his postdoctorate work, he has moved even further, getting into computer sciences as they relate to physics.
Professional Growth MacDonald says his saw his protégé’s potential years ago.
“Science is kind of a rough-and-tumble business,” he says. “We’re always sending in proposals and papers and getting them rejected from our peers. You really need a little bit of stability not to get discouraged.
“But he always had a really unusual degree of maturity, an interest in getting things right and a very constructive attitude toward criticism. He was very creative and full of his own ideas at the same time.”
Among Lee’s current projects at Texas State is research into nano-rods, stick-like collections of atoms that display unusual and sometimes-unexpected properties that eventually could have a wide range of uses. One, built with cadmium and selenium, has its own electric field, which could be exploited to produce electricity from sunlight.
It’s edge-of-science work, the kind of work that has to combine well-coordinated team efforts and a passion for research.
“I’m not surprised at all that they’re doing the most sophisticated work in the world,” MacDonald says of Lee’s efforts at San Marcos and Berkeley. “It’s what I hope for all my students when they start out.
“Only some of them wind up doing it, so it’s a great thrill for me to see people doing really important work.”
Especially since they’ve been thinking about it since they were 9 years old.
| || |
Dr. Byounghak Lee file
Home: South Korea
Education: BS, Korea University; MS and PhD, Indiana University; postdoctoral work, University of Illinois and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
Currently: Assistant professor, Department of Physics
Of note: His advisor, Allan MacDonald, came to UT-Austin from Indiana University halfway through Lee’s work on his doctorate, so Lee moved to Austin to continue studying with him . . . the project that won the Gordon Bell Prize involved simulating the behavior of nanostructures through the Linearly Scaling Three Dimensional Fragment method, known in the jargon as LS3DF, on almost 160,000 computers working in parallel.
Et cetera: Lee grew up playing soccer, but hasn’t had time to find a team since returning to Texas from California.
He said it:
On his career: “My father is a businessman, and he wanted me to be a lawyer. But I was never interested in being a lawyer.”
On the team that won the Gordon Bell Prize: “When we started, we didn’t have intention to compete for this award. It was purely out of our physical curiosity about how to do it.”
Rising Stars Profiles
Rising Stars Archive