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January 2014

"Everybody Is an Engineer": An Interview with Maria Luckyanova

Maria Luckyanova sees engineering in everything and thinks you should, too

Kara Manke

Maria Luckyanova is passionate about engineering sustainable solutions for the world's pressing energy needs.

When cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, most people credit the pilot for their safe journey through the skies. However, the next time you are on an airplane, Maria Luckyanova wants you to think about the teams of engineers who also contributed to your flight: the mechanical engineers who built the engines and the wings, the chemical engineers who developed the fuel, and the electrical engineers who designed the flight control system.

Luckyanova, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is particularly passionate about helping people see the importance of engineering in solving the world's need for clean energy. As a member of the Solid-State Solar-Thermal Energy Conversion Center (S3TEC), an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), Luckyanova uses laser-based methods to study the nanoscale flow of heat through complex matter, with the goal of optimizing materials for efficient thermoelectric energy conversion. A paper she co-authored on her work was recently published in Science, and she was one of the winners of the student and postdoctoral fellow research competition at the U.S. Department of Energy's EFRC meeting, July 2013.

Luckyanova's parents, who both hold doctoral degrees in physics, moved from Moscow to Miami when she was almost five years old to give greater opportunities to her and her sister. She spent her teenage years in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at MIT in Boston, where she has established both a personal and a professional home. On a chilly day in late November, Maria and I met up over Skype to discuss her passion for engineering, clean energy, and her adopted hometown.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an engineer?

Oh, no. I had so many different ideas. I wanted to become a conductor for an orchestra, or I wanted to be the president—unfortunately, that was never to be because I wasn't born here. Seriously, we don't have a good way of telling kids about all of their career options. I didn't know what engineering was until I started college at MIT.

How did you decide to pursue mechanical engineering?

I started at MIT thinking that I would be majoring in physics, and I took the first physics class that a lot of the future physics majors take—I think they call it "physics for masochists." I liked it, but I couldn't really see how it could be applied. My first semester, sophomore year, I took the mechanical engineering thermodynamics class and never looked back. And, I'm really happy to say that now because my research is in heat transfer.

Do you ever think about how you could have been introduced to mechanical engineering at a younger age?

I used to think about that a lot because I wished I knew before I came to college what my options would be and what careers people actually have. When I was a sophomore I volunteered for the MIT Women's Initiative, where I visited middle- and high-school classrooms in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and explained what engineering was. The first question we would ask was "do you know what engineers are?" They wouldn't know at all; they wouldn't even have any guesses. To answer them, we would say that engineers make things, they build things, they design things—pretty much everybody is an engineer of some sort or another. They would be so surprised by that.

When you come to a place such as MIT, you realize that basically everyone is an engineer. Maybe that's part of why it is so hard to nail down what engineers do. It's almost like engineers do everything behind the scenes.

Do you continue to do outreach work now?

I do other forms of volunteering now. As an undergrad I did a lot of outreach to kids in particular: reading with kids at the Cambridge Community Center or doing science projects with kids from local schools. However, I realize now that there is still a huge problem with a lack of communication between the scientific community and adults. I served on the editorial board of the EFRC newsletter for the first two issues in the hopes that we could reach people with the message of the importance of energy research.

You are now a graduate student in Gang Chen's group, where you are studying heat transfer as a part of the S3TEC EFRC. Could you describe the research that you are performing as part of the Center?

I study the flow of heat through very small materials. When most people think about heat transfer, they think about an object heating up and cooling down, and mechanical engineers model this behavior with diffusive heat transfer laws such as Fourier's law. However, when you go down to the nanoscale, a lot of these laws break down, and quantum phenomena become important. At those really small scales, understanding the specific characteristics of the vibrations of atoms is crucial to understanding the transport of heat. I study the wave-like properties of these atomic lattice vibrations, which are known as phonons. I also study how defects in materials can scatter phonons, and how other material properties can change the behavior of these phonons.

How did you choose your research project?

In my second semester of graduate school, I took Gang Chen's radiation class, and I liked how fundamental it seemed while simultaneously having so many applications. When I joined his group, he gave me the freedom to explore various projects and talk to people about what they were doing. One day, I was talking to [fellow graduate student] Kimberlee Collins about her research, and I was fascinated by the laser system and the optical components. I spent a few days measuring things with her. One day she had to deposit gold on a sample, and she let me put a quarter into the deposition chamber. I deposited a layer of 90 nanometers of gold on a quarter! After that, I thought, "I have to do this."

What impact do you think your involvement with S3TEC has had on your research and graduate education?

I feel so fortunate to have been part of the S3TEC community, because it is rich in experience, knowledge, and people with different backgrounds. In the S3TEC meetings I get to discuss my research with people from chemistry, materials science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics. This degree of collaboration would probably not have happened without the support of this type of program. I can't imagine that any of our lab groups individually could have been nearly as successful without the collaborations that we've had. I may be in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, but I feel like what I really am is an engineer who works on energy problems.

Both of your parents hold doctoral degrees in physics. Do you often discuss your science with them?

No, not really. My sister had a baby a year and a half ago, and the baby is very much the focus of the family, including for me. My adventures in graduate school take a back seat to the growth and development of this adorable child. I think it's nice to have a place to go where nobody wants to prod you about your phonons or your laser's stability.

You've been living in Boston for ten years now, longer than you have lived anywhere else. Is Boston home for you now?

It is, it really is. I think I became an official townie when I became obsessed with the local football team. I have so much Patriots' gear, it's unreal. I count down between the end of football season and the beginning of the next one, and I have two different Patriots-related apps on my phone. I can really say that I'm from Boston and I'm proud of it.

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Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.