The joy of teaching research

The National Science Foundation says the world needs 6 million nanotechnology workers by 2020, with 2 million in the United States alone. For mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Keunhan “Kay” Park, the timing couldn’t be better.

Park, 37, researches how heat affects nanostructures that are revolutionizing health care, consumer electronics and energy sources. He also has classrooms of students, many of whom will soon seek careers in the field.

Engineering Professor Keunhan Park
Engineering Professor Keunhan Park with a Lego creation that mimics an atomic force microscope.

“The moments that excite me are when I discover something new,” Park says. “Just as exciting is when I share that new knowledge with students and others.”

Park started sharing his knowledge while serving in the South Korean Navy as an instructor at the country’s Naval Academy. He found teaching surprisingly enjoyable and rewarding. After his service, he scrapped plans to enter private industry and instead pursued a doctorate at the Georgia Institute of Technology in anticipation of a career in academia.

He found one in 2008 when the University of Rhode Island offered him a position. Students say he fits the mold.

They call Park a professor devoted to instilling a sense of excitement in his students about the power of research. In the classroom, he’s known for replacing dry textbook problems with his own research and offering wisdom about preparing for careers in nanoscience.

E-mails rarely spend more than a few hours in his inbox unanswered and typically end with an offer to meet and discuss the latest findings in the field. A brief hello can turn into an hour-long muse about the latest research and career opportunities.

“He’s very big with supporting student research interests,” graduate student Nola Palombo, 24, says. “He’s not just about making sure research gets done.”

Park takes every effort to ensure his students understand research in the field and how to someday conduct it themselves. When he teaches abstract concepts such as changes in temperature on the nanoscale, he develops graphs and plots and computer programs that bring the cold equations to life. In graduate courses, he turns over his lab’s atomic force microscope that offers views of nanoscale features to his students.

His interest in sharing research also reaches beyond campus. To teach middle and high school students about atomic force microscopes he turned to Legos, the plastic bricks better associated with kindergarten than a University.

With money from the National Science Foundation, Park tasked undergraduate student Ron Sadlier to design a device composed of Legos that mimics an atomic force microscope. Sadlier, a physics and applied math major, combined the bricks with a Lego-Mindstorm controller, a low-power laser and software enabling users to download data in real-time. As the system scans a surface, a computer screen displays what resembles a topography map of every nook and cranny of the surface.

“Fun and learning always starts from seeing,” Park says. “After seeing something, you have interest in it. Without being able to draw something in your mind it’s really hard to grasp the concept.”

Park himself loves seeing the latest innovation. He holds a membership to the Boston Museum of Science and loves visiting frequently with his daughter in hopes of catching the latest science on display. The Providence resident is also intrigued by nearby zoos, including Roger Williams Park Zoo, which offer upfront views of the latest in nature. In sports, Park admires Michael Jordan, who revolutionized basketball with his innovative techniques and even his fashion.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that something new sparked his interest in science. When his parents handed him a radio kit for his 11th birthday, he spent hours fiddling with it until the static of a local station came through. Immediately, he shared the news with his parents.

“I can make a discovery but unless I can make others learn then there’s no benefit to my work,” he says.