Research as Tough as Diamonds: A Liberal Arts Approach to Engineering
Written by Madeleine Jepsen
Alongside his fellow Hillsdale students, Viktor Rozsa, ’14, studied the great books under Dr. Jackson and classics with Dr. Hutchinson. His summers, however, he spent researching geophysics and molecular behavior in extreme conditions.
Between his freshman and sophomore years, Viktor worked at the University of Michigan, helping synthesize molecules that would give insight into the substances in Earth’s core, where molecules are subjected to extreme pressures and temperatures. He continued this work the following summer at the Carnegie Institute of Science’s geophysical laboratory.
“They try to replicate those extreme conditions in the lab,” Viktor said. “Even though they’re not digging down hundreds of miles below the surface of the Earth, they can say, ‘Well, when we take carbon and we take iron and squeeze them in this way and heat them up like crazy, this is what we see, so therefore, we think that this type of molecule is stable at these conditions inside of our Earth, which means something about how the Earth formed,’ or something like that.”
Viktor changed his research focus slightly from there, continuing to study high-pressure physics but with an eye toward industrial applications. This brought him to Argonne National Laboratory and Brown University, where he focused on manipulating pressure and temperature to engineer new types of materials. Industrial engineers often require special materials with a specific set of properties to complete a task, and Viktor worked with a team of researchers who attempted to create new types of molecules that are stable at certain temperatures or pressures and can be used in an industrial setting.
“One of the coolest things about studying molecules at extreme conditions is the tools we use,” Viktor said.
These tools included diamond-studded saws and diamond-anvil cells, which can be used to cut through tough materials and can withstand the extreme temperatures and pressures the research requires. By shooting x-rays and lasers into the diamond-anvil cells containing the molecules they were studying, the research team collected data about their molecules of interest based on the patterns of energy that scatter off the transparent cell.
He also studied cubic boron nitride, a molecule stable at extreme conditions that researchers believe might be as tough as a diamond.
“Basically, if you have an industrial process where you have to cut through crazy things, it’s very common to use diamonds on the tips of saws,” Viktor explained. “That’s all well and good, but for one thing, it’s expensive, and there are some things you can’t cut through because they actually start chemically reacting with diamond. Basically, that all was motivation to say, ‘Can we make a different kind of material that’s similar to diamond and may be just as hard, but doesn’t have the kind of weaknesses for application?’”
After deciding that he wished to pursue high-pressure physics research further, Viktor looked to grad school and chose University of Chicago’s Molecular Engineering program, which takes a unique approach.
“Instead of some of the traditional fields of engineering—you’ve got your mechanical engineers, your civic engineers, chemical and material engineers—here, instead of focusing on these traditional divisions of what fields should be, they’re looking at everything at a molecular level,” Viktor said.
This integration of many types of engineering allows students and professors of different disciplines to work together to approach research questions from unique perspectives—essentially, a liberal-arts approach to engineering.
Viktor has continued his studies of high-pressure physics but has changed his approach. Instead of laboratory tests, he uses computer simulations to explore the properties of molecules in extreme conditions. This type of research focuses on predicting the molecules’ behavior in a theoretical model, and fine-tuning the set of assumptions the model uses in order to get a simulation as close to reality as possible.
Though the field of molecular engineering may seem far removed from the liberal arts education offered at Hillsdale, Viktor said the critical thinking and communications skills he gained through his Hillsdale education have served him well in his field.
“One of the very best skills that students will learn at Hillsdale is the ability to write and coherently express themselves,” he said. “It is exceedingly rare for science majors to have the level of immersion in humanities, rhetoric, and writing that we receive at Hillsdale.”
Madeleine Jepsen, ‘18, studies biochemistry and journalism. Outside the classroom, Madeleine serves as a reporter and assistant editor for the Collegian. She is also involved in Catholic Society.