Senior Scientist; Institute of High Performance Computing
Nanyang Assistant Professor; Nanyang Technological University
AsianScientist (Jul. 9, 2018) – Exploring the fundamental laws of nature is all in a day’s work for Dr. Justin Song, senior scientist at the Institute of High Performance Computing, a research center under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore. Although Song identifies as a theoretical physicist, he makes it a point to engage frequently with experimental physics groups, believing that both approaches complement each other.
Song’s expertise lies in quantum materials—a field that bridges the seemingly disparate disciplines of physics, materials science and engineering. He has published work on manipulating light at the nanoscale, with potential applications in the development of quantum devices for sensing, computing and secure communications. For his work, Song received the Young Scientist Award at the Singapore President’s Science and Technology Awards 2017.
In this interview, Song shares with Asian Scientist Magazine his motivations and his hopes for the future.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
We theoretically unravel how the internal electronic structure in quantum materials leads to unusual trajectories, dynamics and responses.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
It’s hard to pick a particular research project, but a recent project that was very stimulating for me concerns plasmons, which are the collective oscillations of electrons in a metal, that can be used to compress and manipulate light on the nanoscale.
While their properties have found application in a variety of technologies, they are typically regarded as simple wave-like objects. This year, our research group at A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, reported that beyond the simple wave-like facade, plasmons can possess a hidden internal structure that can dramatically affect its propagation: it consists of swirling microscopic currents that can form intricate patterns in a metal.
This result was unexpected for us and for the community, and it is such surprises that make research so exciting.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
Our group aims to formulate completely new types of tools and concepts to control the dynamics and trajectories of electrons in quantum materials that can be used to build a new generation of quantum devices.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
There is a long list of people—colleagues, friends and mentors who have motivated and continue to motivate me as a scientist with their research conduct and their unique perspectives on the natural world.
Another motivating factor is the very close and constant communication between theorists and experimentalists. Collaborations are common, and we take sincere and substantive input from each other so that the field advances together at a steady pace.
In the field of two-dimensional quantum materials, such as graphene, it is not uncommon for theory to propose a novel effect which can be rapidly confirmed experimentally. However, additional unexpected features are often revealed during the investigation. This promotes further theoretical and experimental study, setting off a virtuous cycle that enables an exciting pace of scientific discovery and learning.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
It is challenging to pinpoint the biggest adversity because good science involves many moving parts, such as funding, people, opportunity and time, all of which must work together for research to bear fruit. However, I would say that talent is an essential ingredient that is not always easy to find.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
One systemic challenge is the overall lack of junior group leader positions for young aspiring scientists all over the world. These first independent scientific positions are a vital pipeline for new scientific approaches, lines of research and renewal. This issue, unfortunately, has no easy solution.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?
I’d probably have gone into a music-related career, perhaps something in musical theater.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
Sourcing the best local food, lining up to taste it, and discovering the stories behind its creation.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
Climate change is probably one of the most pressing global challenges. Radical advances to our energy technology that may arise from new physics (or new materials) can be part of the solution.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
This is perhaps applicable to researchers everywhere: be clear in what you’d like to achieve, and constantly question your assumptions in charting out the path to your goals. Keep persisting, and stay curious.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Justin Song.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.