Craig Fennie is turning the world of materials science upside down. He and his collaborators are developing a whole new way to make useful materials, one atom at a time. "Solid-state chemists, often driven by intuition, discover new materials irrespective of their properties," says Fennie. "They'll say, 'Hey, let's figure out how to make these things and then see what happens.'" Fennie and his collaborators come at the problem from the other side. They start with a property in mind, work out a model, and then combine it with quantum mechanical simulations to search for a real material with that property. Says Fennie, "We are trying to move away from serendipity and into a more rational approach."
The materials Fennie and his collaborators are creating might someday be the basis for a new way to store digital information using much less energy than current methods and materials. Another experimental material shows promise as an efficient way to convert sunlight to power. Even more exciting to Fennie is the process behind the substances. "We are creating new materials based on a 'first principles' approach and this is different than it has been done before. This is a new way of approaching things."
Fennie was recently recognized for the creativity of his approach by the MacArthur Foundation, who awarded him one of their "Genius" grants for 2013, much to his surprise. Fennie did not always aspire to be a scientist. "I grew up in Philly, first in a tough working class part of town and in another, slightly better part of town. I was a power lifter in high school and in college." He did not grow up steeped in cutting edge technology. He only just recently gave his mom a laptop computer and introduced her to e-mail and the internet. "When they announced I had won a MacArthur, I called my mom and I told her to Google 'Fennie' and 'genius.'"
"My parents did not go to college. None of us are really sure how I got here," says Fennie. "I was always the person who people thought was going to do great things, but I never followed through." For Fennie, "not following through" involved working as a bouncer at a club in Philadelphia for four years after graduation from Villanova. Eventually, he found his way into some physics classes at Rutgers and everything started to click. Now he is an award-winning materials scientist and assistant professor in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell.
When asked about his success, Fennie is quick to talk about the contributions of his collaborators at Cornell. There are six Ph.D. students, eight post-doctoral fellows, and at least six faculty collaborators in Fennie's lab group at Cornell. Fennie says his work would not be possible without the engineering skills of professors Darrell Schlom and David Muller and the computing support of expert Dave Lifka. "Cornell engineering is phenomenal. Some of the best scientists in the world are here."
Craig Fennie and his collaborators are rethinking how we search for new and useful materials. Their work is a ground-breaking combination of deeply theoretical physics and completely practical solid state chemistry. Whether you call him a genius or not does not matter much to Fennie. He is happy doing what he does. "I have always done what I have loved to do, and when I wasn't, I made changes. I am in the best place now; I love what I am doing here and I am going to be at Cornell for a long time."