Office of Science

Meet the Director: Supratik Guha

August 7, 2019

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“It’s a myth that big technological advances are made by just one person. The way I’ve seen it, there are lots of people and input from lots of directions.” Supratik Guha
“It’s a myth that big technological advances are made by just one person. The way I’ve seen it, there are lots of people and input from lots of directions.” Supratik Guha
Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

This is a continuing profile series on the directors of the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facilities. These scientists lead a variety of research institutions that provide researchers with the most advanced tools of modern science including accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, light sources and neutron sources, as well as facilities for studying the nano world, the environment, and the atmosphere.

Meet the Director:

Supratik Guha found himself eating lunch with some of the true icons in the world of physical sciences. It was 1995, and he’d just started work at IBM. “I sat with them because it was the unofficial department lunch table for our department,” said Guha. He was awed by his colleagues’ achievements, accolades, and academic prowess.

But listening to the conversations around him, he soon realized something. “They had doubts,” said Guha. “They had questions about things in science they felt they didn't quite understand.” Those questions helped him see his career in a new way. “Maybe I’m not as bright as them, but if I kept making myself better, I could try to be like them. That was very important to me,” he said. “It told me I could be ambitious in thinking about what I wanted to do.”

For Guha, that ambition led to developing and analyzing materials that led to major changes in how computer chips are built. His research, done at IBM with his colleagues in materials sciences, is part of the transistor technology integral to cell phones, computer tablets, and other tech. At one point, over half of the smart phones and tablets sold used materials and processes developed by Guha and his colleagues.

“That was an incredibly satisfying effort,” said Guha. “When you start, you are doing research and publishing. Ten years later, it’s actually in technologies.”

Although his materials work has earned him accolades, including being named to the National Academy of Engineering, Guha is quick to point out that science is a team effort. “It’s a myth that big technological advances are made by just one person,” said Guha. “The way I’ve seen it, there are lots of people and input from lots of directions.”

That idea is critical to Guha’s leadership style at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), a DOE Office of Science user facility at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. To run a world-class user facility, Guha must know what scientists need to do cutting-edge research now and what they’ll need in three to five years, such as the resources for quantum computing studies. But talking to people isn’t enough. He also reads and analyzes scientific strategies from DOE and other national research agencies to find opportunities to grow or redirect resources.  

The Director’s Background:

From a relatively young age, Guha knew he wanted to be an engineer. After completing a metallurgical engineering degree in India, he moved to the University of Southern California and earned a doctoral degree in materials science.

He spent three years at 3M Corporation and left to join IBM. He thrived there as a materials scientist, but he wanted more. “I like to take things from basic science and move them towards technology commercialization,” said Guha.

So he got involved in IBM’s research and technology commercialization strategies. Eventually, he led IBM’s worldwide R&D strategy in physical sciences. After 20 years with the company, Guha decided it was time for a change, which led him to become CNM’s director. “I felt that I had something to offer,” said Guha of directing one of DOE’s five Nanoscale Science Research Centers. “I brought a lot of experience—bench-scale science, tech development. I thought those skills could be useful.”

As director, Guha makes sure CNM remains a world-class facility for scientists. Guha reaches out to scientists at universities, national labs, and industry to explain what the facility has to offer. When he started at CNM in 2015, he wanted to encourage more collaboration between the user facility and industry. He’s worked with the CNM team to engage with companies that can take science coming out of CNM and translate it into things that affect the public good. “We’ve made progress,” said Guha, “but we need to do more.”

The Need for Nanoscience:

At CNM, researchers have access to leading expertise and instruments to build and analyze nanoscale materials. These materials intrigue scientists because the tiny particles don’t act like their larger counterparts. The melting point, conductivity, reactivity, and other properties change at the nanoscale.

Today, nanomaterials and the science around them are part of everything from your car’s catalytic converter to the electronic brains that make your smart phone smart. But nanomaterials still hold a lot of secrets. Learning those secrets could change energy storage and production, including technology in fuel cells and next-generation computing. Also, nanoscience could lead to less expensive, more energy-efficient sensors that outperform today’s options. To get at those secrets, scientists need unique instruments and experts well-versed in nanoscience. That’s where CNM comes in.

“We have two assets: scientists and experimental resources and capabilities,” said Guha.

Facility:

The facility offers scientific expertise and about 150 instruments. These include ultra-fast microscopes and spectroscopy systems to watch nanomaterials react; fabrication tools and 17,000 square feet of cleanroom space to design, synthesize, and analyze nanomaterials; and theory and modeling capabilities to create large-scale simulations to understand how the tiny materials behave. Researchers gain access to CNM through a competitive, peer-reviewed proposal process.

With all of these capabilities, researchers don’t propose run-of-the-mill studies. “We don’t do routine measurements for users that they could get done at a pay-for-service commercial lab,” said Guha. “We do things that have an element of innovation and discovery.”

For example, a scientist wouldn’t travel to CNM to determine the thickness of an ordinary bit of material. They go to get atomic-level measurements about materials under extreme conditions. 

“CNM also levels the playing field,” said Guha. Researchers at smaller colleges and universities often have less access to the state-of-the-art equipment they need to conduct their work than those at larger institutions. CNM attracts faculty from these smaller institutions as well as from larger ones who want to work with CNM’s staff scientists. From October 2017 through September 2018, CNM hosted 608 users.

Best Advice for a Future Director of CNM:

Guha notes that for CNM to remain a world-class facility, directors must offer scientists the ability to do original, high-quality work. Making that happen requires careful planning, constant communication with scientists, and thorough analysis of the research landscape. “World-class user facilities don’t happen by accident,” said Guha.

 

In Fiscal Year 2018, CNM and the other user facilities welcomed more than 36,000 researchers — from academic, industry, and government laboratories in all 50 states and the District of Columbia — to perform new scientific research. Learn more about the DOE Office of Science’s user facilities.

Please go to Profiles of User Facilities Directors to read more articles on the directors for the Office of Science user facilities.

 

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit www.energy.gov/science.

Kristin Manke is a Communications Specialist on detail with the Office of Science. To provide feedback, please email Shannon.Shea@science.doe.gov.