Ilke Arslan is the director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials user facility at Argonne National Laboratory.
Ilke Arslan is the director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials user facility at Argonne National Laboratory.
Image 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.

 

Contributing Author Credit: Christina Nunez is a freelance writer for Argonne National Laboratory, media@anl.gov.

Meet the director:

When Ilke Arslan received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2010, it turned out to be more than a milestone honor. The presidential award came with an opportunity to meet President Barack Obama and high-level government leaders of scientific agencies.

At the time, Arslan was an assistant professor in the chemical engineering and materials science department at the University of California, Davis. The trip to Washington marked a career turning point.

"That experience changed my perspective on science and government," she says. "That's when I decided that I needed to work at the national labs. I wanted to serve my country in the way that I could, which is through science."

Today, Arslan is director of the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM). There, she oversees a portfolio of research that focuses on innovations a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. Work at the CNM has relevance to everything from how we produce and store energy to fighting COVID-19.

The director’s background:

Arslan started out as a pre-med undergraduate at the University of Illinois Chicago with plans to become a physician. "When I realized that I couldn't actually deal with dissections, I decided to switch to a harder science," Arslan says with a smile. She turned to physics, eventually earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in the subject at University of Illinois Chicago and then a doctorate in physics from University of California, Davis.

"I like the way it describes how the universe works," Arslan says of physics. "There are so many amazing discoveries in terms of the small things that we can't see. It's extremely interesting to me that we're still discovering new particles and how little we know about dark matter, for example."

Arslan joined Argonne in 2017 as group leader for electron and X-ray microscopy before becoming interim director of the CNM in 2019. She officially assumed leadership of the facility in July 2020.

"I wanted to go into leadership so that I could affect scientific discovery at a much larger scale than one person performing research on their own," she says.

The facility:

The CNM at Argonne, which began full operations in 2007, is one of five DOE Office of Science Nanoscale Science Research Centers.

The core research at the CNM is centered around three themes: quantum materials and sensing, manipulating nanoscale interactions, and nanoscale dynamics. Within these themes, a user can find expertise in investigating novel materials for creating qubits — the units of information within a quantum computer — and studying their interactions; employing robots guided by artificial intelligence to accelerate materials discovery; and using ultrafast lasers, electrons, and X-rays to understand dynamics in materials. The facility also has cleanroom tools to create nano-size detectors. All of these activities are focused on understanding materials for next-generation energy applications.

Researchers from around the world use the CNM to develop and explore materials that form the basis of many current and future technologies. These include batteries, solar panels, and microelectronics - the tiny components that go into computers and other devices.

"Everything starts at the nanoscale, and understanding that is the first step in being able to control a material's properties," Arslan says. "Very fundamental processes on the nanoscale affect how the material behaves as a device."

Users at the CNM can create nanostructures, which are measured in nanometers — one nanometer is a billionth of a meter. They can also use the facility's dozens of tools, including high performance computing, to understand the properties of these nanomaterials and how they behave under certain conditions.

The CNM operates a beamline jointly with Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (also a DOE Office of Science user facility), the Hard X-ray Nanoprobe (HXN). The HXN is extremely well paired with the suite of electron microscopes housed at the CNM because each of these imaging methods can probe complementary lengths and volumes of material.

"We can get different types of information from each of these imaging methods," Arslan says. "That can form a much more comprehensive picture of what's happening in a material or during a process."

Argonne scientists within the CNM divide their time between conducting their own research and helping users perform their experiments and analyze data. "Our users get exposure to the world-leading scientific expertise of our staff, along with the cutting-edge, state-of-the-art tools that we're able to provide," adds Arslan.

Typical day:

Much of Arslan's time is spent performing the administrative work for the laboratory’s Nanoscience and Technology Division and for the CNM user and science program. "It's a mix of people management, operations, safety, and science," Arslan says.

But her favorite parts of the job include science strategy and operations discussions with the CNM staff, as well as conversations with the directors of the other DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers to share updates on research happening across those facilities. “At the CNM, I enjoy our monthly safety walkthroughs of labs,” she says, “because I get to interact with the staff in their specific work locations and hear about their research and safety concerns directly.”

Arslan has a passion for outreach and training the next-generation workforce, especially underrepresented minorities. “The CNM is the perfect place to train young scientists and engineers. The facility is particularly powerful for students from institutions that do not have the resources for state-of-the-art tools,” Arslan says. “My hope is that the CNM can be the tide that raises all boats by providing the resources and training for students and postdocs, no matter their background or education, so that more and more people are on equal footing for opportunities in the future,” says Arslan.

Typical experiment:

"We have on the order of 150 different tools at the CNM," Arslan says, which is one way of saying no experiment that takes place at the CNM could be considered typical. "The research that takes place here is very diverse, and it really depends upon the user's needs."

In the spring of 2020, as the world grappled with the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the CNM studied facemask fabric filtration, examining the aerosol filtration efficiency of different fabric types. The results suggested that high thread-count cotton, particularly when layered with silk or flannel, could offer good protection against the virus when used in a well-fitting mask. [Editor’s note: see alsoFacemask Fabric Filtration Efficiency”]    

Many people have since reached out to the lead researcher to convey how that study helped them and their families stay safe with better masks during the pandemic. In this sense, the mask study was quite atypical. Most CNM research is an early building block that enables technologies we need for daily life, from batteries to water filtration, and the average person might not see the connection.

"Usually, we don't hear from the public directly like that," Arslan says. "But that is our role: to perform science that's going to make the lives of the taxpayers better. So those messages are really encouraging to read."

Best advice for a future director at the CNM:

"The first thing I would say is to listen," Arslan says. For her, that means listening to staff, to the users of the CNM, to Argonne leadership, and to DOE. "Being director of the CNM is a difficult position because there are so many different stakeholders and demands on your time," she continues, "but we are here to provide a service to the nation, and it is truly an honor for me to lead this Center in achieving that goal."

 

In Fiscal Year 2021, the Center for Nanoscale Materials and the other user facilities welcomed researchers from academic, industry, and government laboratories in all 50 states and the District of Columbia – to perform new scientific research. For details on the DOE Office of Science User Facilities, please go to User Facilities.

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

DOE Explains… offers straightforward explanations of key words and concepts in fundamental science. It also describes how these concepts apply to the work that the Department of Energy’s Office of Science conducts as it helps the United States excel in research across the scientific spectrum. For more information on nanoscience and DOE’s research in this area, please go to “DOE Explains… Nanoscience.”

 

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 the Office of Science website.