He will quickly explain in his soft but assertive voice that it will help his memory as you write your name and affiliation on the drying photograph.
A tall, thin man with a beaked nose, Sturm took an unusual path to B410 — his large, paper-strewn office in the E-Quad.
Though he always had a passion for “electrical gadgets” such as toy trains when he was growing up in Berkeley Heights, N.J., he explained that he had expected to follow the steps of his father, who studied engineering before becoming a “business type.”
After working as an intern at Intel after graduation, however, Sturm said his curiosity prompted him to question the materials he was working with. Finding no satisfying answers, he said, he decided to forgo business school and return to studying electrical engineering.
“I was frustrated [at Intel] because there were a lot of things I didn’t understand, and no one could tell me why it was the way it was,” Sturm said. “So I got the bug to do more on the technical side, and here I am. It took a few loop-de-loops.”
Today, as the director of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, Sturm is well known for his decades of research in material science working with semiconductors and other materials. He is also known for his ability to connect the basic research done in the lab to industrial applications, particularly because of his experience with former employers such as Intel, Western Electric and Siemens.
“I’m doing [my work] because I know it needs to be done for a specific application,” Sturm explained. “I’m an engineer because I know where I’m trying to get. That’s different from a scientist who says, ‘What are the laws of nature?’ or ‘Why does the brain work the way it does?’ ”
Sturm often explains very simply that he works with the big and the small.
On the nano scale, or the size of about three to six atoms, Sturm and his team of graduate students are testing the properties of substances that may be used in transistors and integrated circuits for implementation in microprocessors and memory chips in everyday consumer products such as laptops and MP3 players. Smaller and more efficient chips or “nano-electronic devices” may pave the way for the production of even smaller devices within the next two decades.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sturm said his group is also trying to discern which combination of materials can be used on the large scale for products such as LCD screens and solar panels and which substances can be grown the fastest and cheapest.
The Sturm lab is currently in talks with an electronic display company to fund research for different materials, including amorphous forms of silicon, to discover cheaper and more stable materials.
Kun Yao GS said that working with Sturm was especially valuable because of the professor’s connections in the industry as well as the wide range of his research projects in comparison to other professors, who may have narrower research focuses.
“In biophysics you think, ‘Why do you need electrical engineering?’ They just want to achieve some functionality fast and quickly,” Yao said. “Biophysics is quite new and different from all the traditional electronics.”
While actively searching for organic materials that have the potential to revolutionize large-area electronics, Sturm has also turned his eye in the last few years toward biological applications of engineering research conducted in his lab.
Sturm has helped improve methods of electrophoresis, a process used to separate DNA fragments by size.
Using technology developed through collaboration with physicists and molecular biologists, Sturm’s lab was able to quickly electronically sequence DNA of different sizes in a matter of seconds — a process that had previously taken hours.
Such technology may potentially reduce the cost of sequencing the human genome from $300 million to a mere $1,000 and significantly aid ongoing research on the role genes play in various human diseases, Sturm said.
More recently, Sturm built a device that automatically sorts blood cells into categories of white and red with great precision because of the orientation of electronic and magnetic fields.
Yao said that many of Sturm’s “wild ideas” have been well received by his graduate students and have ranged from “hacking into the control system” of hybrid cars to dictate when they use gas and electricity to employing solar power for all household utilities.
Sturm explained that having grandparents who were carpenters made him comfortable with materials and altering their properties.
“It wasn’t like I blew up the family television, but I learned not to be afraid to take things apart,” he said. “There’s a lot of things you can fix by just taking things apart and putting it back together, and then people say ‘Oh, you’re a genius!’ ”
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