By: Don Mock email@example.com
When UF Professor Hai-Ping Cheng was growing up in Shanghai, nothing could have prepared her for what happened in the second grade. It was 1966, and the start of China’s Cultural Revolution. Schools were shuttered, students sent home, text books burned, and access to knowledge severely limited. For the next ten years, any academic-style learning had to be accomplished through sheer determination and with the help of family and friends, including a former high-school teacher. Her father, a medical doctor, taught her anatomy by bringing human bones home from work. An old algebra book, which somehow had escaped the flames, allowed her to become proficient in math at an early age. But what really made a difference was finding a biography about Madame Curie, the famous French Nobel Laureate in both physics and chemistry. Here was a powerful role model – a successful woman who liked math and science, who seemingly enjoyed life to the fullest (she even loved to dance).
By the time the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Dr. Cheng was of college age. Although largely self-taught, she took the entrance exam for Shanghai’s Fudan University when it first reopened and got in. She picked physics as her major – because that’s what Madame Curie would have done. Four years later, she applied to graduate school at Northwestern University and made the jump to the United States – not an easy thing to do at the time. After postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and Georgia Tech, she had job offers to become a researcher for Mobil Oil Corporation or a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Florida. Florida was her pragmatic choice because, as Dr. Cheng says, “UF provided the opportunity to do what I want to do.”
Twenty-two years and 13 PhD students later, Dr. Cheng is a full professor in theoretical condensed matter physics. Among her many interests is nanotechnology -- specifically “What’s the smallest possible magnetic switch?” Knowing the answer to this question can impact the design of nanomachines for use in quantum computing – computers so small that they use quantum mechanical properties of atoms to operate on data. The speed of existing computers is often limited by the time it takes electrons to cross the printed circuit boards at the speed of light. Shrinking the components down to the quantum level holds the promise to vastly increase computing speeds. The trick to making a small magnetic switch is to construct a molecule with an inorganic core surrounded by a fluffy organic outer layer. The core provides the molecule with its magnetic properties, while the outer layer keeps the cores from adjacent molecules from bumping into each other and sticking (like bar magnets). Essentially, Dr. Cheng is using computational physics to construct designer molecules that will exhibit desired inductance, capacitance, and conductance properties.
Another research interest of Dr. Cheng’s involves the interaction between water and silica (e.g., quartz or glass) at the atomic scale. These two substances are two of the most common substances on earth. Water corrodes everything - think rust; rocks crack more readily in a humid environment; and even glass is easier to cut when held under water. So how does liquid water crack open a rock? Dr. Cheng uses computational physics and quantum mechanics to model forces at the crack tip to predict the amount of weakening. The model results then suggest new experiments, which in turn help improve the theory behind the observations. The end result is a better understanding of the interactions between these two key substances, with a goal of using the knowledge to our advantage, by keeping materials strong when that is important, or breaking them on demand.
Life is not all work for Dr. Cheng. Despite her Florida address, her passion is hiking in the mountains. During sabbaticals, at conferences, or on family vacations, you will likely find Dr. Cheng seeking alpine wonders at every opportunity. Her favorite spots are the trails around Mt. Sneffels (14,157’) near Telluride, Colorado, and the Matterhorn (14,692’) near Zermatt, Switzerland. She also enjoys cooking and hosting parties. She makes sure to provide a traditional Thanksgiving feast to the students in her group that find themselves far from home. Knowing that life should be an adventure, as an advisor she lets her students take the time to figure out what they want to do. As she says, “It’s OK to make mistakes or change your mind.” She herself was an experimentalist before turning to theoretical physics. But above all, Dr. Cheng now serves as a role model of a successful scientist for the next generation of students, à la Madame Curie.