UCSC Review Winter 1997
Faculty Profile: Sue Carter
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation bestows $500,000 fellowships each year on twenty of the most promising young researchers in the country. Biochemist Joseph Puglisi and molecular biologist Charles Wilson of UCSC snared the awards in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Last year, Santa Cruz hit the trifecta, joining Caltech, the University of Chicago, and UC San Francisco as the only three-time Packard winners for 1994-96. The recipient was physicist Sue Carter, who at age 30 is helping to chart a radical new course for the future of microelectronics.
The need for a change is clear: Within several years, it will be impossible to cram any more components onto microchips. Manufacturing techniques will reach their practical limits, and the weird laws of quantum physics will begin to ruin such tiny circuits. Further, the quickening pace of our lives has created a market for easier, more portable ways to get information. These include flat- panel displays, thin-screen TVs, and even "electronic paper" so we can plug into books or news on the go. Today's technologies, based on silicon and other inorganic materials, aren't versatile enough to adapt to these new demands.
Instead, Carter believes, tomorrow's advanced materials will include a heavy dose of organics, such as plastics and other carbon- based compounds. Mixing the two classes of materials offers a tantalizing promise: the durability and reliability of traditional inorganics plus the flexibility and environmental benefits of the atoms and molecules that compose living things.
"The next generation of optoelectronic materials almost certainly will be both organically and inorganically based," Carter says. "Each type of material has limitations and advantages. The key is to combine the best of both."
Such couplings raise a host of challenges in physics and chemistry. That makes it an ideal pursuit for Carter, who has degrees in both fields. Her forte is studying the relationship between the structures and the electrical properties of clumps of molecules in the composite materials. She probes the behaviors of long strings, or polymers, of the materials while varying their temperatures, chemical compositions, and exposures to ultraviolet light.
"I'm trying to control the microscopic structures of these devices and to determine how electrons move through them," Carter explains. "You really need a solid grasp of the basic science to get the applications to work down the road."
Of particular interest to Carter are the shapes, sizes, and orientations of the particles, as well as their reactions to electrical impulses. These factors will help researchers design composites for specific purposes, such as new light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for ultrathin computer screens. Carter also hopes to shed light on how to avoid the nasty habit that organics have of degrading over time.
Carter collaborates with scientists at IBM's Almaden Research Center near San Jose, where she worked before coming to UCSC last April. Ties between academia and industry, she notes, are becoming more vital. "Industry is cutting back on much of its basic research just as semiconductor technologies are about to hit a wall," she says. "It's up to universities to help fill that gap."