Natalie Dawley: Ph.D. Student

Natalie Dawley


For most of Natalie Dawley’s high school years, she assumed a career in foreign policy was awaiting her after college. “I loved learning and speaking French; I even spent a semester in France in high school and I wanted to use that experience to move forward learning about foreign policy,” says Dawley during a recent conversation at the Gates Hall Gimme! Coffee shop on Cornell’s Ithaca campus.


But then she took physics as a high school senior and, says Dawley, “it completely changed my path.” Dawley, who has always enjoyed puzzles and figuring out how things work, suddenly found an entire field devoted to mathematically describing how things work at the most fundamental level.


This switch from French to physics is not so surprising, in retrospect. Both of Dawley’s parents are chemists. Her mother was her high school chemistry teacher. “We were always talking science at the dinner table.”


Dawley’s hometown of Culpeper, VA is 45 miles from Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. “Growing up, I always knew I would end up at UVA. My Dad got his Masters in materials science there and it is a strong school.” At UVA Dawley dove into her newfound love of physics and declared her major the minute she was able. “Majoring in physics at UVA was great. You get your own key to the building and there is a separate physics library and a key to let you in at night—you always have a quiet place to study.”


More importantly, Dawley found that physics gave her a key to describe events in the actual world. “If I throw a ball into the air, physics can explain how I can calculate its exact trajectory,” says Dawley. While majoring in physics, Dawley also earned a minor in materials science. “My Dad recommended that I use one of my rare electives to take a materials science course and I loved it,” says Dawley. “Materials science is an excellent crossover for me; it uses physics to describe what we see and interact with in the world.”


As an undergraduate Dawley had multiple research opportunities with ECE and Materials Science professors focused on solar cell technology. Those experiences made it clear to Dawley that she wanted to continue on in school and earn a Ph.D. The only questions were what to major in, (condensed matter physics or materials science?) and where to go?


Dawley looked at schools that were strong in both fields. Cornell was high on the list. When Dawley came to Ithaca to visit she was impressed by the way things felt. “It was clear that there were a lot of very intelligent people here,” says Dawley, “but it was also clear they didn’t need to brag about it. The Materials Science Department seemed like a family. It felt like I could talk to any professor and they would be willing to answer my questions and give me advice.”

Dawley’s decision was an easy one. She came to Cornell and started work in the lab of Darrell Schlom, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE). “I got here not knowing ceramics could go beyond pottery and be exciting materials, but after silicon they are the basis of modern electronics,” says Dawley. “The more I learned the more I saw the field as a playground for all kinds of exotic material physics.” The field Dawley is referring to is the fabrication of oxides for electrical applications.


Dawley is using molecular-beam epitaxy to atomically layer materials is such a way that the resulting ceramic material will have properties useful in electronic communications equipment. “The materials we have today in cell phones are not able to work at higher frequencies where we could have higher data speeds,” says Dawley. “We are looking for new materials that will allow cell phones to work at these higher frequencies. One idea is to create a new material that can compensate for its own flaws. If we can get it right, it will be very useful in 5G or 6G cellphone technologies.”


Dawley, who plans to graduate in the summer of 2018 and take a job in industry, has been in the Schlom lab for seven years.  “I have gotten to work on all parts of the materials design process,” says Dawley. “It has been fulfilling to learn about theory, fabrication, characterization, and device application. There are so many more questions I want to answer.”


When she is not working on creating new materials for use in communications equipment, Dawley enjoys learning about the science of cooking and working with new ingredients. Living in Ithaca, with its many gorges and hiking trails has also led Dawley to an unexpected love of mineralogy and geology. “The world is interesting to me—I like to think about out how things fit together; how they work,” says Dawley with a big smile.

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