Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mentoring enabled Samulski and Lopez to accomplish more than could be done alone

Ed Samulski has a thing for Monarch butterflies. Not as a collector, but as a chemist with a crazy idea about how he might harness their hidden power.

“If you were to ask me, ‘What is the blackest thing you’ve ever seen?’ I would say, ‘the black on a Monarch butterfly,’” he said. “It is just dead black, and it is that way not because there is a dye but because of the nanostructure that gives it that property.”

For years, Samulski contemplated the depths of the butterfly’s blackness, wondering if it was possible somehow to replicate that same light-trapping nanostructure on a solar cell.

If he could make a solar cell that could absorb and retain more sunlight, it would become more efficient. And if such cells could be produced on a mass scale, it could be the breakthrough necessary to make solar power a viable alternative energy source around the world.

To help him test his theory, Samulski needed someone who was both intelligent and knowledgeable about optics.

That’s when Rene Lopez entered his life; or rather, when Samulski decided to intrude into his.

Forming a bond

The story of how Samulski, a heralded chemistry professor near the end of his career, met Lopez, a brand new arrival on the physics faculty, is a prime example of the culture of interdisciplinary collaboration at Carolina.

“Rene was one of the interdisciplinary hires made by Carolina’s Institute for Advanced Materials, Nanoscience and Technology (IAM),” Samulski said. “Because of his interdisciplinary training and research focus, I knew he could be a good resource on this problem.”

Lopez shared the story during a recent workshop on mentoring sponsored by the Center for Faculty Excellence. Others spoke of their difficulties finding a mentor, while Lopez talked about how his mentor found him.

When Samulski walked into Lopez’s lab in the basement of Phillips Hall, he didn’t mince words about why he had come, Lopez recalled.

“I am old,” Samulski said. “I want to use what time I have left doing something that matters. I want to get something done.’”

And then he described his idea about the blackness of a Monarch butterfly – and how he needed Lopez’s expertise to test whether it could actually work.

Samulski, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton more than 40 years ago, is generally interested in the study of synthetic and biological macromolecules in materials ranging from rubbery elastic networks to semi-crystalline and liquid crystalline polymers.

He served as director of a NASA University Research Engineering and Technology Institute on Biologically Inspired Materials and, along with chemistry professor Joe DeSimone, is co-founder of Liquidia Technologies, a Research Triangle start-up company formed to develop a new technology for producing nanoparticles for drug and gene delivery.

Two decades ago, Samulski hired DeSimone into Carolina’s chemistry department, and in 2005, Lopez was hired by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in association with the IAM, which was initiated by DeSimone. For the past decade, the IAM has served as an interdisciplinary research institute coordinating research in nanomaterials and nanobiosciences.

Administrators in the College of Arts and Sciences are looking at ways to enhance the culture of interdisciplinary collaboration even further, perhaps by expanding the study of applied sciences.

Lopez, who was born in Mexico, earned his Ph.D. in physics from Vanderbilt and spent time working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a federal lab geared to developing solutions in clean energy and global security. Among his research specialties is photovoltaics, a method of generating power by converting solar radiation into electricity.

What Samulski remembers most about his first encounter with Lopez was that he knew he had come to the right place. When Samulski started talking about his idea, Lopez began nodding in agreement.

“The idea was sort of beautiful and he understood it immediately,” Samulski said.

In that moment nearly six years ago, an instant bond was formed.

Not so crazy after all

It turned out that Samulski’s idea was not so crazy after all, which Samulski and Lopez – along with applied mathematics professor Sorin Mitran – were able to prove. They won a SOLAR grant for $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation to do the research.

That grant nicely intersected with a five-year $17.5 million grant the University received from the U.S. Department of Energy. Part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, this money was used to start the Solar Fuels Research Center to develop solar fuels and next-generation photovoltaic technology.

The researchers were able to show that a novel type of photonic-crystal solar cell – inspired by the beautiful, iridescent colors of minerals, gems, insects, and, yes, Monarch butterflies – could be developed to enhance the absorption of light and increase solar cell efficiency.

But there still are bugs to be worked out, Samulski said.

“We worked for three years on it and came to the conclusion that ‘yeah, the optics are fantastic’ but we still need to find a material to develop the kind of nanostructure that doesn’t cause a deterioration of ‘the electronics’ to get the efficiency we are looking for,” he said.

With the work completed so far, Carolina has created a unique educational environment for undergraduate and graduate students from chemistry, physics and mathematics to continue the search for a solution.

“We got an awful lot of knowledge out of this because we all really believed in it,” Samulski said. “We made enough progress that the world knows we know how to pattern these surfaces and everybody else and his brother is now doing it. It looks so cool.”

Aiming for ‘something spectacular’

Samulski is reluctant to assume the mantle of mentoring hero.

“I just want to make it clear that mentoring is not something one does for altruistic reasons, but something one does to accomplish more than can be done alone,” Samulski said. “I entered into this relationship because I understood there could be some synergy there if things worked out – which they did.”

As for efforts to institutionalize the mentoring process, Samulski has his doubts.

“I cringe when I hear of department chairs assigning a faculty member to mentor somebody. It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You have to discover a mentee, or a mentee has to discover you, based on what you are both interested in. It is that mutual interest that allows both the mentor and mentee to become professionally empowered by the relationship.”

Lopez said he probably did not need Samulski to help him learn what to do to get tenure. He was producing ample research and getting it published in the right journals long before he met Samulski.

What Samulski helped him see is that work had value far beyond furthering one’s career.

“For me, starting to work with Ed really changed my life,” Lopez said. “He changed my perspective about what I wanted to do as a scientist. I absolutely understand people who stick with the basic science, but after meeting Ed, I wanted to do more. I don’t like going this route where you don’t know where you are going. I like the route where you are aiming for something spectacular.”

It is a route he now shares with the undergraduate and graduate students he works with.

“I tell my students it is very hard to do something that has an impact,” Lopez said. “I tell them, ‘We try these things, we might not get anywhere. But if we succeed, it will be a big deal.’”