Materials Designer

By Chris Dawson

Using first principles, Macarthur 'genius' Craig Fennie and collaborators create new materials from the ground up.

Craig Fennie is deeply skeptical of the word “genius,” especially when applied to him. “I have always hated the word,” he says, while sitting cross-legged and shoeless on a couch in his office. “I have always hated standardized tests. I have done badly compared to how people thought I should do on them.” Presumably, the selection committee, president, and board of directors of the MacArthur Foundation did not look at Fennie’s SAT or GRE scores before giving him a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius award.”

“When you look at my life I don’t really know how I am here. I feel so lucky—I feel like I need to give something back,” says Fennie, clearly still trying to make sense of his award.

MacArthur Fellows represent an eclectic mix of fields. This year’s roster of 24 winners includes a jazz musician, an immigration lawyer, a paleobotonist, a medieval historian, a choreographer, a neuroscientist, a photographer, and several writers. The thread that ties this diverse group together and runs through the work of all the winners is extraordinary creativity. The MacArthur Foundation seeks out individuals who “actively make something or find something new, or connect the seemingly unconnected in significant ways.” Fennie’s work fits this description perfectly.

Fennie, a materials scientist and assistant professor in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell, was cited for his work combining theoretical physics with solid state chemistry. Sit with Fennie for even just ten minutes and you start to catch glimpses of a creative fire.

His work is a ground-breaking combination of deeply theoretical physics and completely practical solid state chemistry. “Physicists love to find the simplest model that describes the properties of known materials,” says Fennie. “Solid-state chemists, often driven by intuition, discover new materials irrespective of their properties. They’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s figure out how to make these things and then see what happens.’” Fennie and his collaborators have turned that approach on its head, starting with a property in mind, they work out a model, which they then combine with quantum mechanical simulations to search for a real material with that property. “We are trying to move away from serendipity and into a more rational approach.”

Fennie uses this approach to identify previously unknown materials that should, if his calculations are correct, have desirable optical, magnetic, and electrical properties. He works with others in the College of Engineering to then build these materials, atom by atom. Listening to Fennie talk about his work, it quickly becomes apparent that he always uses the plural “we” instead of the singular “I.”

“We are looking at things in a physics-y way. We have had to learn a lot of chemistry, but we can do this,” says Fennie. “We have been incredibly lucky—we have had more than one success lately.”

There are six Ph. D. students, eight post-doctoral fellows, and at least six faculty collaborators in Fennie’s lab group at Cornell. “Cornell Engineering is phenomenal. Some of the best scientists in the world are here,” says Fennie. “It is strong across the board in physical sciences and engineering like nowhere else. It covers the full spectrum of engineering from purely fundamental and a bit abstract to fully functional and practical.”

This breadth of expertise makes Fennie’s work possible. “Professor Darrell Schlom is the grower and Professor David A. Muller is his eyes. Darrell makes just about everything I have worked on, while David, using his powerful electron microscopes, is able to see where Darrell is putting the atoms. I could not do what I do without them,” says Fennie. “We really need to push the field’s current understanding of fundamental solid state chemistry to build the materials we want to build at the atomic scale, and with Darrell and David we are creating that knowledge.” Fennie also credits Dave Lifka of the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing with making his work possible. “Without them I would go nuts...I need lots of computing power, but don’t want to spend brainpower on that problem. They allow me to focus on what I love, understanding the physics and chemistry of real materials. ”

Throughout the conversation about being named a genius, Fennie’s responses evince a genuine bemused humility. “My parents did not go to college. None of us are really sure how I got here,” says Fennie while shaking his head. “I was always the person who people thought was going to do great things, but I never followed through. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started to follow through.” Fennie studied electrical engineering at Villanova University in Philadelphia. Rather than go into industry or apply to graduate school, Fennie took a different route to genius. He became a bouncer.

“After college, I worked at a club in Philly called Maui. I was a bouncer there and I loved it.” The word ‘bouncer’ may not seem in keeping with the stereotype of a physicist, but then when you look at Craig Fennie you think, ‘Yeah. This guy really could be a bouncer.’ He is barrel-chested with big biceps straining the fabric of his long-sleeved shirt. “I grew up in Philly, first in a tough working class neighborhood and then in another, slightly better, part of town. I was a power-lifter in high school and in college.” Many people from Philadelphia have a very strong accent that is immediately recognizable to someone familiar with the area. Fennie shows no evidence of this way of speaking. “I worked really hard to get rid of my Philly accent,” says Fennie, showing the only trace of pride he let out in the entire one-hour conversation. After four years checking ID’s and keeping a bit of order in Maui, Fennie started to look for something different.

A former adviser from Villanova got Fennie involved in a small engineering company, where he worked for three years and became interested in learning more about physics. “I took a few classes at Rutgers as a non-matriculated student,” explains Fennie. “By the time I was in my third class, the professor asked if I wanted to work for her.” At the same time, Fennie made a big change in his life and stopped drinking. “I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t quit drinking before getting my life straight and heading to Rutgers for grad school,” says Fennie.

At Rutgers, things started to click. Rather than being that guy who everybody thought was going to succeed someday, Fennie became that guy who was succeeding. His dissertation won the Richard H. Plano Prize from Rutgers and he received the Nicholas Metropolis Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship from Argonne National Laboratory. He came to Cornell in 2008 and shortly after won a Young Investigator Award from the Army Research Office Materials Science Program, a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation, and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. It became clear to Fennie that he had found his passion.

Or, to be more accurate, he had found another passion. The first passion Fennie found was punk music. “I was about 13 when I heard the Ramones for the first time and was hooked ever since. Despite growing up on the East Coast my taste has mostly been for “California punk/hardcore” bands like The Descendents, then later NOFX and Pennywise, and most recently the Aussie band Frenzal Rhomb,” says Fennie. “The biggest influence by a long shot has always been Bad Religion, in my mind the best band ever!” Fennie is aware that the lead singer of Bad Religion, Greg Graffin, is a lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, but he denies this is why he decided to come to Cornell. For a while, Fennie himself played guitar in a punk band. He says that after-hours the hallway near his office often echoes with the strains of punk music played at near-maximum volume.

The MacArthur Foundation stresses the point that when they grant a fellowship they are not honoring past achievements, but instead investing in future creative work. Their strategy statement makes this clear: “The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.”

Some of the materials Fennie and his collaborators have created may end up as the basis for a new way of storing digital information. Others may be the foundation for a new generation of solar collectors that can more efficiently harvest photons from the sun and turn them into a power source here on Earth. Beyond these admittedly very useful and exciting applications, Fennie is clearly thrilled by the more fundamental repercussions his work may have. “We are creating new materials based on a ‘first principles’ approach and this is different than it has been done before,” says Fennie “This is a new way of approaching things.”

In the end, whether he sees himself as a genius or not seems totally irrelevant to Fennie. “If I can’t have it all, I don’t want any of it. I need to be doing what I love,” says Fennie. “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.”