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In physics lab, one mystery leads to another

mihalik [1]While analyzing the thermoelectrical properties of a dozen samples, Darin Mihalik ran into some unexpected results. The surface of the material, which features a layer of insulation on top of a wafer of silicon and silicon germanium, shouldn’t conduct electricity. But it did, and Mihalik needed to know why.

“I have the mindset of an investigator, and I really think that’s where my career path is headed,” says Mihalik, a senior physics major from Patchogue, N.Y., who works in the thermoelectric energy generation lab of Bruce White, associate professor of physics and department chair. “I like finding things out, and I view this as a challenge. I know something is happening, and I want to get to the bottom of it.”

According to one hypothesis, the samples might simply be contaminated, possibly through an interaction with ultraviolet light. According to another, there might be a gap in the three omega method, the technique that’s used to test materials in White’s lab and around the world. If that’s true, then Mihalik might be on the trail of something that could change the way scientists measure thermoconductivity, and someday lead to materials that efficiently convert heat to electricity.

“We’re still at the beginning stages of discovery,” White said. “We know there are some strange, non-linear responses creating these spurious measurements. The question is whether we can describe them mathematically, and whether we can get to a level that would allow us to see the appropriate thermoconductivity of the materials we’re testing. If Darin is successful in doing that, it would be a great service to the community.”

During his remaining months at Binghamton — between playing baritone sax in the Harpur Jazz Ensemble, working as president of the College Republicans, leading campus tours and serving as a captain in the Civil Air Patrol — Mihalik is committed to solving this puzzle, hoping it might lead to his first published paper. It could also help him set a course for doctoral work in emerging phenomena, which he calls “one of the greatest mysteries in solid state physics right now. I want to get things done,” he says, “and I want to have a part in helping, really helping people.”

White considers Mihalik a natural leader. “He’s very intelligent, and his work ethic is tremendous,” White says. “That’s a powerful combination. Once he starts working on a problem, he’ll keep coming up with clever ways to attack it, and won’t let go until he’s found a way to solve it. That shows up in the successes he’s having in the laboratory, and I know it will keep showing up in whatever he’s going to do in life.”

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