“By breaking disciplinary barriers, I believe condensed matter physics has placed itself at the frontier of science” – an interview with JPCM section editor Professor Talat Rahman

Talat Rahman is a Distinguished and Pegasus Professor at the Department of Physics, University of Central Florida, and section editor of the new Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter section on Physics of Chemical Processes. We caught up with Talat to find out more about her career, the new section, and the evolving field of condensed matter physics.

What research projects are you currently working on?

We are very much engaged in understanding, and eventually predicting, optical and chemical properties of two-dimensional materials such as transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDC) and hexagonal boron nitride as modified by defects and dopants.  Single layers of the TMDCs possess amazing properties such as a direct band-gap in the visible spectrum and unusually large binding energies of bound excitations (excitons, trions, biexcitons) which point to possible energy related applications.  There is also considerable evidence that defects play a major role in enhancing the chemical properties of some of these materials.  In collaboration with several experimental groups, we are looking into the possibility of using these materials as coast-effective catalysts of higher alcohol production (for example through hydrogenation of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide).  In a related project we are examining the viability of single metal atoms, whether adsorbed on an oxide surface or serving as the coordination center in molecular network on surfaces, as active sites for technologically relevant chemical reactions.  A good part of our efforts are also dedicated to developing techniques that go beyond the present our work horses, namely density functional theory, molecular dynamics and kinetic Monte Carlo techniques. These developments are necessary to allow us to carry out, on the one hand, multiscale modeling of systems of interest, and on the other hand, address issues related to systems in which electron correlations play a significant role. In short, our work falls under the paradigm of rational design of functional materials.

Read Talat’s work on the symmetry-resolved electronic structure of 2H-WSe2(0001) here.

Find her paper on Scattering strength of the scatterer inducing variability in graphene on silicon oxide here.

How has the field of condensed matter physics changed throughout your career?

The field of condensed matter physics has undergone changes in leaps and bounds throughout my career. From my perspective the field became  noticeably interdisciplinary with the growth of surface physics, which in turn led to advancements and innovations in a number of experimental techniques, culminating in discoveries such as that of the scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopes, and in computational techniques, such as those based on density functional theory.  Phenomenal world-wide activities in surface science, over several decades, led to the advent of nanoscience and nanotechnology, which thrives to this day and brings together physicists, chemists, materials scientists, biologists, and engineers.    Condensed matter physicists are also reaping the benefits of the materials genome initiative which helps facilitate interactions also with computer scientists in accelerating the discovery of novel materials.   I believe that given the successes, interdisciplinarity will continue to broaden the horizons of condensed matter physics for long time to come.

You mention that Condensed Matter physics is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and the new section is a reflection of this. What is the main motivation behind JPCM launching this new section?

Condensed matter physics is indeed very interdisciplinary and its practitioners publish in a variety of journals.  A good number of such publications are in chemistry journals, which helps reach out to chemistry and chemical engineering readership. There is still the need for condensed matter physicist to publish their interdisciplinary work in journals whose readership has traditionally been composed of condensed matter physicists.  It allows them a different platform and format for the presentation of their work.  It invites other condensed matter physicists in the exchange of ideas and discussion on topics that they may not have entertained otherwise.  In the end it helps extend the circulation and sphere of influence of JPCM, in particular, and of condensed matter physics, in general. I see this new section as also drawing articles from colleagues in chemistry, chemical engineering, material science and other related fields, adding further to diversity of ideas.

What sort of research would you like to see in the new section?

We chose the title to reflect our initial ideas about this section.  We would like to solicit articles that examine chemical processes, such as catalysis, from a physics point of view.  While there is a lot of overlap between physics and chemistry and in the end the concepts are connected, the axioms, the nomenclatures and vocabulary can be quite different.  A very simple difference is in the units that are used in the two fields: eV versus kJoule/mole. The lack of familiarity with terms and concepts may keep condensed matter researchers away from publishing in chemistry oriented journals.  This section of JPCM would provide the opportunity to discuss chemical processes with physics terminology!  This may not sound like a big deal, but I believe the new section of JPCM will allow scientists engaging in relevant interdisciplinary research reach out to a condensed matter readership and beyond.

Are there any particular challenges that exist within the field at the moment that you would like to see addressed?

Yes, interdisciplinary research is high risk and high gain and full of challenges.  Working together helps address these challenges as we are able to address an issue from different perspectives.  However, a major obstacle is the mode of communication since we may speak different technical languages, as I mentioned above. By encouraging scientists to present their understanding of leading issues in the field from different perspectives, we may be able to have better grasp of what is already known and what needs to be better understood.

What is the best thing about being on the JPCM board?

I have enjoyed my interactions with the editorial board and all members of JPCM editorial and publishing team, as they have always being lively, directed and meaningful.  It has been great to see our collective ideas come to fruition. As a board member I always felt that I was taken seriously and that we were working towards a common goal.

And finally, do you have any advice for young researchers entering the field?

When I was entering the field as a junior faculty I had no idea how much the field would evolve and how interesting it would get as time went on.  By breaking disciplinary barriers, I believe condensed matter physics has placed itself at the frontier of science.  My advice to young researchers is to take advantage of the diversity in all sense of the word, seek sound collaborations, let your imagination loose and think out-of-the box.

Recent work in the JPCM section Physics of Chemical Processes

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