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Big Orange. Big Ideas. They’re fueling UT Knoxville on its journey to become a Top 25 public research university. Here are three faculty members who are bringing big ideas to life in the classroom, through their research and through community service.

Ben Blalock

Benjamin Blalock
Blalock, left, with students.

When NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) needed help designing electrical circuits for its latest Mars Rover, “Curiosity,” they turned to Ben Blalock, UT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“My team had been working with NASA and the JPL for a while and we had gravitated toward designing integrated circuits, or in this case, ‘quad op amp’ microchips, for extreme environments,” said Blalock, who directs the Integrated Circuits and Systems Laboratory.

Although ubiquitous in consumer electronics, microchips on Curiosity’s exterior must be able to withstand 500 days of potential radiation exposure and temperatures ranging from minus 140 degrees Celsius to 120 degrees Celsius. Because NASA can’t send a repair guy to Mars, the chips must be three times more reliable than usual.

No pressure, right?

With those parameters in mind, Blalock and two of his doctoral students, Stephen Terry and Robert Greenwell, began designing the perfect chip.

“We not only had to design it to meet the Martian surface environment requirements, we also had to overdesign it to operate in environments even colder than minus 140 degrees Celsius. NASA eventually hopes to go beyond Mars and send rovers to asteroids.”

After rigorous testing at the JPL, numerous parts of Curiosity were fitted with Blalock’s microchips—more than 200 quad op amp chips in total.

Using these chips enabled more electronic systems to be implemented on Curiosity’s exterior, which helped minimize cabling headaches on the rover and made room for the addition of more scientific instrumentation, which will provide NASA’s scientists even more information about the Red Planet.

“It’s terribly exciting,” Blalock said. “I’m thrilled that the students had this opportunity. It helps them grow as circuit designers and makes them more marketable. They were able to do a level of analog chip design that far exceeds whatever they would be called upon to do in the commercial industry. I know for a fact we’re one of the very few university teams—if not the only university team—that’s been able to develop space flight hardware.”

The Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011, and is expected to land on Mars on August 6, 2012.

“I grew up a professor’s kid, which was an enormous blessing. Now as a professor, when I help students finally get circuits working and see the light bulb go off, there’s instant gratification. It’s hard to beat that feeling,” Blalock said.

Blalock now hopes to shift his research to focus on new extreme challenges in integrated circuit design for scientific exploration.

Outside the lab, Blalock is an avid bicyclist and enjoys hiking with his sons, one an Eagle Scout and the other an Eagle Scout in training.

He received his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Claudia Rawn

Claudia RawnIn molding young engineers, Claudia Rawn starts with making pottery.

Rawn an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the new associate director of the Center for Materials Processing, often uses this hands-on approach to inspire students to think differently about atomic structures.

“We’ll go to the Mighty Mud Room in Knoxville and do a Raku pottery firing,” she said. “The artists there are trying to create something spontaneous, but we tie it into class and talk about oxidation and reduction processes. Doing something hands-on is fun, memorable, and instructive.”

Bill Dunne, associate dean of the College of Engineering, said Rawn’s commitment to students shows in her teaching, her research, and her outreach activities.

In 2011, Rawn and her research team won a STEP RISER award and significant grant funding from the National Science Foundation. Rawn’s team was selected for its work with female and diverse students.

“Smart, young women are a group we especially want to keep in the engineering program. Usually what happens is they go to a medical-related or health services field because they feel they can offer more to society in those fields and make a bigger difference to the world. We get them involved in research so they see how engineering can also make improvements in areas such as energy sustainability, carbon dioxide reduction, clean drinking water, etc., and positively impact society,” Rawn said.

Rawn is co-organizing two summer camps, a summer academic bridge program, and pre-calculus sessions for the fall. She’s also helping to establish a mentoring program and undergraduate assistantships at UT and ORNL for female students.

“If you’re excited about what you do and want to keep it going, then you need to mentor the next round of professionals: The ones that are going to go on beyond you and propel the field forward,” Rawn said.

In her free time, Rawn enjoys hiking, camping, and canoeing with her family.

Rawn received her bachelor’s degree in materials engineering from Virginia Tech, her master’s degree in chemistry from George Mason University, and her doctorate in material science and engineering from the University of Arizona.

Mingjun Zhang

Mingjun Zhang
Photo courtesy of the Knoxville News Sentinel

Professor Mingjun Zhang enjoys looking at nature for inspiration. For his new research project, he asked himself, “how does nature do it?”

“Animals and plants are amazing products made through evolution, but we haven’t come close to creating products as efficiently as nature,” said Zhang, associate professor in Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering. “My team combines nanotechnology with engineering to learn from biological systems for engineering design innovation.”

Nanotechnology examines materials and devices on an atomic and molecular level. Zhang believes that integrating natural biological systems with nanotechnology will help engineer better, more compatible medicine for the human body, and more energy-efficient devices for human life.

Wayne Davis, dean of the College of Engineering, said Zhang’s “work in mimicking natural biological systems and its application to engineered systems is astounding. Zhang recently received a highly competitive Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program award.”

The award, which is given for compelling research with the potential to deliver game-changing naval science and technology, comes with three years of grant funding.

“In the past, the Navy studied large-scale systems such as fish or sharks, but we hope to discover new insights at the micro scale about how nature utilizes energy,” Zhang said.

To do this, Zhang and his students will examine the swimming processes of microorganisms. Zhang said his team is interested in using their findings to develop propulsion systems that are more energy-efficient and reliable.

“When I was a student, I knew how important it was to find help for my research passion. I see myself in my students, so working with students who also have a passion for science and engineering makes me happy,” Zhang said.

In his free time, Zhang enjoys the outdoors and answering questions from his two sons, who are quickly developing their own passion for science, engineering, and robots.

Zhang received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Zhejiang University, two master’s degrees in biomedical and electrical engineering from Stanford University, his doctorate from Zhejiang University, and a doctor of science from Washington University.