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Lyding leads by example

Joe Lyding’s career has been built around the scanning tunneling microscope but his contributions go far beyond developing new technology or innovative research.

Published on March 1, 2006

Risky moves, creative research strategies, and enjoying the work are not only what Joe Lyding practices; they are also what he preaches.

Joe Lyding came to Illinois in 1984 to work with the legendary John Bardeen and explore a research path that seemed paved with potential. As a young professor and researcher Lyding started off growing crystals for the two - time Nobel Prize winner and colleague John Tucker as part of their group’s focus on charged density waves.

A year later Lyding heard an invited talk at a professional meeting about a revolutionary new instrument for atomic scale microscopy and everything changed. He had never heard of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) that IBM researcher Gerd Binnig was describing, but his initial reaction was “wow.” His second was that he had to make one of his own.

It took a year and numerous after-hours visits to a student machine shop before Lyding was actually able to build an STM, finishing just a month in fact before Binnig and colleague Heinrich Rohrer won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the technology. But once the 12-foot tall, four-foot wide instrument was finished to Lyding’s satisfaction, the University of Illinois had one of the few STMs in the world and Lyding had a new career path.

“Once we got atomic resolution, I just dumped what I was doing before and jumped into that,” Lyding said. “It was kind of a risky move for an assistant professor but it worked out.”

Lyding’s accomplishments attest to the wisdom of his decision. His discoveries in the areas of microscopy and micro- and nanoscale research and technology are known throughout the fields of physics, materials science, and engineering.

A year after building that first STM, Lyding was mowing his lawn when an idea for an ultra-stable version popped into his head.

His design of a series of interconnected ultrahigh vacuum STMs served as one of the cornerstone technologies of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology during its early years, and today’s refined versions remain a key part of various interdisciplinary research projects. This new design has been copied worldwide and has been licensed by the University of Illinois for commercial production

Lyding’s career as a researcher has been intertwined with the STM, which provides both visualization and manipulation at the micro- and nanoscale. But he has used the technology to branch off in many directions, including collaborations involving transistor technology and development of an atomic resolution patterning technique.

It’s possible none of it would have happened if he had stuck with his original work on electrical measurements of charged density waves.

“I was already publishing in the other area and there was sort of a clear track toward getting tenure,” Lyding said. “But jumping out of that safety net into the fire was fun, it was exciting, and challenging. To be honest with you, that’s where the action is. The safe route is boring.”

Lyding takes the same approach to teaching students and working with postdoctoral researchers and graduate students in his group. Risky moves, creative research strategies, and enjoying the work are not only what Lyding practices; they are also what he preaches. And it’s a message that has been soaked up over the years.

Scott Schmucker was at the top of his class at Case Western Reserve University, and had his pick of the top engineering graduate schools in the country, including his first choice of Stanford. That was until he visited with the Lyding group and decided to go in another direction.

“When I met with Professor Lyding and the members of his research group my plans for graduate study changed completely,” Schmucker said.

Like his teacher, Schmucker’s switch in plans proved successful. Lyding teaches a course each semester on nanotechnology in which he asks his students to think and act like researchers. As part of a discussion on selective etching of nanowires, Lyding asked his students if anyone could come up with a way to remove a gold catalyst without destroying the nanowire. Schmucker proposed a sacrificial layer that could be etched, thus removing the catalyst but leaving the nanowire intact.

“That was just an amazing idea,” Lyding said. “I said to the whole class ‘you all are witnesses that I think this is an important idea that should be submitted as an invention disclosure.’”

Unfortunately, a research group at Northwestern beat Schmucker to the punch by proposing a similar solution in a Science article that appeared shortly before his proposal was finished. But the story demonstrates the kind of experience students get with Lyding.

Schmucker said Lyding brings “an understanding that any fresh perspective could yield a solution, be it from a Nobel Laureate or an undergraduate student. Not only does Professor Lyding regularly encourage his students to bring their own ideas into the classroom, it is often expected.”

Mark Hersam, an assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern, first met Lyding when the Beckman researcher served as Hersam’s undergraduate academic advisor. Hersam earned his master’s degree at Cambridge – on a British Marshall Scholarship attained with Lyding’s aid – but it was his undergraduate experiences with the professor that drew Hersam back to UIUC for his Ph.D. He served as a research assistant and collaborator with Lyding until earning his Ph.D. in 2000. Hersam said students feel comfortable with Lyding.

“Joe is very down-to-earth and approachable,” Hersam said. “His demeanor is the same in almost all situations – whether it is in class teaching undergraduates or on the basketball court at Kenney Gym. In addition, Joe expresses complicated ideas in a clear and logical manner, which makes his lectures exceptionally understandable.”

Lyding’s style when it comes to explaining research is such that Hersam said he doesn’t remember Lyding ever receiving a clarification question from the audience f o ll owing a lecture at a professional meeting. “Clearly, Joe is a gifted teacher at levels, from undergraduates to Ph.Ds.”

Perhaps that ability comes from Lyding’s teaching philosophy.

“I think it’s far more important to think about what the students need than what I need,” Lyding said. “I’m satisfied with my career, I’ve had a good time, and enjoy what I’m doing. But I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing the students excel. My philosophy is they are going to excel if they’re happy, and in order for them to be happy they need to be empowered.”

Josh Ballard has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and collaborates with Lyding as a Beckman Fellow. Ballard said Lyding’s love of doing research makes him an excellent role model when it comes to inspiring younger students and postdocs.

“You can see that he really enjoys the science that he’s doing by the fact that he makes such an effort to spend time in lab, which he doesn’t have to do,” Ballard said. “You can see that you can go on in life after being a student and a postdoc and can still continue enjoying science.”

Ballard said that quality makes Lyding different than most high profile researchers.

“He’s different in that he’s made a choice to spend time in lab,” Ballard said. “I think he really enjoys not only writing research proposals and papers but doing the nitty gritty stuff.”

Hersam said Lyding is different in another way.

“Joe is the most humble professor that I have ever met,” Hersam said. “In an era when universities are increasingly populated with prima donnas, Joe quietly goes about his business and lets the high quality of his work do the talking.”

Lyding’s students and postdocs like Ballard say the approach works.

“I came here based on the reputation for producing high quality science, but the intangibles of working for, or rather I would like to say with him, have far exceeded any thing I would have expected,” Ballard said.

While he loves doing research, Lyding said teaching is still the most important work that goes on at a university.

“This is a university and the key output of this university is trained students at all levels,” he said. ‘At a major research unive rsity, producing highly-trained M.S. and Ph.D. graduates is the most important thing.”

Lyding certainly has been successful in sending young scientists off to high-level positions in academia and industry. Three of his former students have tenured positions.

“It’s very satisfying,” Lyding said. “They’ve all gotten tenure at other places and are demonstrating success that has mostly to do with themselves, but I think also has something to do with the experience that they have at Illinois.”

Lyding and Beckman colleague Karl Hess collaborated on a project involving hydrogen/ deuterium desorption from silicon surfaces and its potential impact on transistor technology. The original idea came to Lyding much like the one for the ultra-stable STM – a sudden insight – during a casual conversation with Hess.

“I asked him ‘has anybody tried deuterium in transistors’ and he jumped out of his chair,” Lyding said. “It was one of those type moments. It was sort of perfectly obvious to him.”

As a result of that work several major chipmakers have either used deuterium in production or in the advanced development of their latest technologies.

The STM was part of that research project, as well as the key component in a recent project with Martin Gruebele for singlemolecule absorption spectroscopy. Lyding said the STM allows researchers to visualize the actual effects of technologies or methods that theorists can only speculate might work in areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. He said STM technology allows researchers to make and test future applications and ideas and get fundamental information about how they work. One project currently in the initial stages involves putting molecules and carbon nanotubes on silicon and using optoelectronic materials like gallium arsenide as possible precursors for making molecular scale transistors.

“That’s what the STM allows you to do,” Lyding said. “We can make now things that are way over the horizon but could become extremely important as silicon technology runs out of gas.”

Transistors made of single molecules or carbon nanotubes may be in the future, but Lyding’s group is visualizing their potential today. Nowadays the STMs are the size of a person’s thumb and University machinists fashion the hardware according to Lyding’s specs. But the approach is still the same.

“What I tell my students is what you need to do is have fun because the best ideas you’re going to have are going to come out of your creativity,” he said.

In this article

  • Joseph W. Lyding
    Joseph W. Lyding's directory photo.