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Felipe H. da Jornada | Faculty Spotlight

"What led me to engineering/material science was the feeling that I could only really understand a concept if I could compute it."


Felipe H. da Jornada

Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

Principal Investigator, PULSE Institute and SIMES, SLAC

"What led me to engineering/material science was the feeling that I could only really understand a concept if I could compute it."

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city that serves as the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil. This region, known for its rich cultural tapestry, blends traditions from various European and Latin American influences due to its proximity to Uruguay and Argentina.

What led you to the engineering field?

What led me to engineering/material science was the feeling that I could only really understand a concept if I could compute it. When I was a teenager, I noticed that I could only understand the orbit of planets when I coded them up. But, unlike planets, the motion of the atoms that form materials is much richer and harder to predict – and still drives my research group nowadays. I quickly realized that I enjoyed not only learning why atoms and electrons behave in a particular way but also using that intuition from simulations for practical applications that could benefit our society. A career in engineering could clearly allow me to pursue these goals.

Where did you study?

I got my B.S. and M.S. at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. I came to the U.S. to pursue my Ph.D. in Physics at UC Berkeley. My thesis was centered around the calculation of the optical properties of novel materials that are single-atom thin, such as graphene and monolayer MoS2. During my Ph.D., I had access to truly large supercomputers; this made me realize how materials research can now be much more accurate and predict phenomena that were not qualitatively possible just ten years ago. Of course, the recent explosion in machine learning-based approaches further reinforces this exciting outlook for materials science. Finally, following my Ph.D., I did a postdoc at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and joined Stanford in 2020.

What led you to Stanford and your current role? 

While I always enjoyed research and knew I wanted to pursue a career where that was central, I realized early in my PhD that I also liked to collaborate with people who have different perspectives. As I advanced in graduate school and during my postdoc, I also realized that I take great pleasure in mentoring students as they develop through their research and give a complementary view to our own mental models. A significant joy in my work at Stanford is not only to do exciting research and watch my students grow as researchers and, holistically, as people, but also to see how a diverse set of students come up with complementary and creative solutions to problems, and make you pay attention to problems that would otherwise stay out of your radar.

Please describe any of your current research you would like highlighted and describe its importance, and/or any research you hope to accomplish in the future

My research at Stanford uses theory and large-scale computer calculations to understand the electronic and optical properties of materials – broadly known as excited-state properties of materials. These include, for example, understanding how well a material conducts electrical current, absorbs light, and even whether it could be used as a catalyst. Recently, our group has been interested in two exciting directions:

(1) understanding whether excitations in materials can be used for quantum applications, such as qubits for quantum computers or photon sources for the next-generation quantum networks; and

(2) determining if such excitations can be used to engineer qualitatively new materials growth conditions and chemistry. For instance, by simply shining light and taking electrons out of their comfortable, lowest-energy configuration, can one drive unfavorable chemical reactions and even grow materials that are otherwise not thermodynamically accessible? I find these directions very exciting.

A couple of recent publications that deal with the first topic are the following:

What advice do you have for aspiring scientist researchers in the field? 

Ask why you are assigned a particular project, why it is relevant, and if it will continue being relevant for the next decade. Also, talk to many people broadly in your field – understand the challenges in the conceptual formulation of a problem, the experimental realization/determination of the relevant quantities, and the industry needs, if any. Progress and disruption often take place at the intersection of two fields, so it is critical to understand a problem from various angles and long-standing challenges from different communities. Finally, take deep pleasure in performing the research!

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