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Undergraduate physics research draws Nebraska native to State

Jace Waybright
Jace Waybright, a sophomore physics-mathematics major, carefully spreads an experimental Heusler compound on a sample holder for x-ray diffraction analysis. The opportunity to do undergraduate research drew him to State.

When physics and mathematics major Jace Waybright came to South Dakota State last year, he hit the ground running—in research and in academics.

He had spent the summer before his freshman year working with SDSU assistant physics professor Parashu Kharel through the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. And, he started his first semester at State with 30 college credits under his belt.

Making connections

When the Lincoln, Nebraska native came to Brookings for Scholars Weekend in spring 2016, he told Joel Rauber, then head of the physics department, he was interested in doing research.

“I got a full REU spot before I even entered college. It was miraculous,” said Waybright, who is also enrolled in the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College. “Looking back, I’m glad I expressed my interest in research early or I would not have gotten that opportunity.”

Waybright, Kharel and Qian
Kharel and Waybright load a Heusler compound sample into a magnetometer to investigate its magnetic properties.

Kharel and Waybright worked as a REU faculty-student pair in Lincoln for 10 weeks and published two papers in the 2017 AIP Advances journal on their work with researchers from the UNL and University of Northern Iowa. Dr. Kharel credited collaboration with the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience for making this possible. 

The strong connection that Waybright and Kharel built through the REU experience then led to their continuing research on magnetic materials for spintronic applications in fall 2016 at State.  “Jace is a bright, highly motivated young man who will one day be a very successful researcher and educator,” Kharel said.

Waybright sees the ability to develop connections with his professors as one of the factors that has contributed to his success. “I know them and they know me,” he said. Most of his classes have less than 40 students and upper-level physics classes usually have around 10 students.

A third article in AIP Advances will soon be published. Waybright has presented his work at five conferences and won five awards for poster and oral presentations, including first place in the EXPL EXPO-2017 people’s choice category at SDSU this month. Waybright hopes to present some of his work at the March 2018 American Physical Society meeting in Los Angeles.

Developing intermetallic materials

Spintronics uses the direction of an electron’s spin, up or down, instead of its charge to carry information in ones and zeros. Specifically, the researchers are developing magnetic intermetallic materials, known as half-metallic Heusler compounds, that can be used on the read head of computer hard drives. These new materials will make it possible to read information more accurately and efficiently.  

“Research is so much different than typical coursework,” Waybright said. “If you’re solving a physics problem in class, you know a solution exists. In research, you don’t know if what you’re doing is going to work at all. You have to develop a dynamic mindset and plan.”

The Heusler compound has to be magnetic and stable, Waybright explained. “If you can’t create a material with good structural order, you will not get the properties you desire. In addition, it is challenging to produce that ordered structure again and again.” He recalled during his first semester working with Kharel, “I studied many materials to see if they would work, but I got nothing worthwhile until December.”

Waybright explained, “It’s the magnetic and structural properties that make Heusler compounds interesting. Oftentimes, we are not making an entirely new compound, but improving one that already exists.”

For example, this semester he is working on developing a new compound starting from a known compound, which has low Curie temperature but possesses other desired properties. A high Curie temperature is important for practical applications because it offers working temperature much above room temperature, Waybright explained.

“I want to get the best of both worlds,” he said. That means adjusting the formula to increase the Curie temperature while still maintaining its magnetic properties. A UNI scientist performs the theoretical analyses to support their experimental work and analytical work is also done with UNL collaborators.

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