Science and Technology News

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Through The Eyes Of A Scientist – Dr. Michelle Johannes

Many of us seek to understand the universe around us through philosophy, speculation, faith, even superstition.  But for Dr. Michelle Johannes, a computational physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory Center for Computational Materials Science , she’s using mathematics and theories.

So what ubiquitous question (or questions) is she seeking to solve, and how could doing so help service members?

So glad you asked…

“So the goal of my research is to understand what underlying physical or chemical properties determine the performance of materials,” said Dr. Johannes.  “And I do that by using a computer to model the complex quantum mechanical and classical mechanical equations that govern that material’s properties.”

So what does that mean, exactly?

“So in practice, what I do is I put all of these equations into a computer for a specific material, and the materials I study are useful for the Navy.”

Basically, you’re using magnets, superconductors, structural materials and battery electrodes. 

“Right.  And I try to understand what properties of those materials make them work better or worse, and then make changes that can improve them.  And I use these methods to predict what would be better materials or how to make materials work better.”

So what is it like working at the Naval Research Laboratory?

“I work in a great branch with a bunch of other computational scientists, and we routinely wander down the hall, ask each other questions, and discuss each other’s research.  It’s extremely collaborative.  And even outside of my branch, I’ve found all of the other members of NRL to be extremely willing to collaborate, share results.”

Do you have any liberties to explore different branches of research?

“There’s a lot of freedom to sort of follow my own interests.  If I think something is interesting, I can pitch a program to our research board here and then I can work on that.  And people have worked on all kinds of unusual things.  I used to work mainly on superconductivity.  I got an interest in battery materials, pitched a program.  I’ve been allowed to work on it to my heart’s content.  And it’s really a great place to work in that sense.  There’s a lot of scientific freedom, and there are smart people to work with.”

So the people that you work with are really great

“In my field I get to meet computational people.  I’m used to writing papers, mainly with other theorists or other computational people.  But here at NRL, someone from a publication actually came to interview people in the chemistry department about their battery work.  And through this guy, who knew someone in my department, we met each other.”

So do you collaborate with him on a regular basis, then?

“I work on a pretty regular basis with the people in chemistry now, and I’m not even a chemist by background.  But since we both have an interest in the same materials, I’ve learned a lot from them and they’ve learned a lot from me.”

Did collaborating with them assist you in your work as well, then?

“In collaborating with them on battery materials, I also started working on catalysts.   And that was a completely new field for me.  But they had a lot of expertise over there, so I got to learn a lot.  And in turn, I think that some of my calculations helped them to improve their materials.  So that’s the sort of thing that goes on here [at NRL], I think, quite a lot.”

So what are you hoping to achieve with your research here?

 “Well, my end goal is really personally, for me, understanding.  I mean, I’m really interested in science and understanding.  And I’ve always wondered, you know, how do things work, what are things made of, these sort of basic scientific questions.  So for me personally, that’s what I’m after.  I’d really like to understand the physics that governs materials.  If you understand something, then you can manipulate it.  But for me, the sort of intrinsic drive is to understand.”

Well Dr. Johannes, with women like you at the scientific wheel, I have no doubt that you will.  And, just so we’re clear here, if you do understand the process of teleportation, I totally call dibs on the fifth successful test.  You know, after you send a few redshirts  through the thing first.  Just to be safe.


Dr. Michelle Johannes  is a computational physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory Center for Computational Materials Science .  Information for this article provided by the Naval Research Laboratory

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