Feature Story | 9-May-2023

Material scientist Ashley Bielinski relied on her passion for cutting-edge research to grow her career at Argonne

2019 Maria Goeppert Meyer Fellow stayed on to continue making novel discoveries in atomic layer deposition

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Ashley Bielinski recently finished a Maria Goeppert Mayer (MGM) Fellowship at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. The MGM Fellowship is an internal award given to outstanding doctoral scientists and engineers to help them develop their careers in Argonne’s high-impact research environment. The fellowship honors Maria Goeppert Mayer, a theoretical physicist who earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for her work at Argonne proposing a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells of the atomic nucleus. The fellowship provides early-career scientists the opportunity to pursue their own research interests, with the support of a sponsor and up to three years of funding.

During her fellowship, Bielinski developed a new approach for studying atomic layer deposition (ALD), a process in which a thin layer of material is deposited onto a substrate. ALD is an important technique in research and industry where it is used for fabricating computer chips, catalysts, biomedical devices and solar energy technologies like solar panels. After finishing her fellowship in 2022, she decided to continue working at Argonne as an assistant material scientist to advance her research on ALD. Bielinski describes her research program and how her experience at Argonne inspired her to stay.

“Everyone at Argonne is an expert in what they do and they’re committed to working together to push new ideas forward.”

Q. What is your research program at Argonne?

A. My research centers around a technique called atomic layer deposition or ALD. It’s a surface synthesis technique that uses sequential surface reactions to deposit material onto the surface of a substrate in a vacuum chamber so we can get very controlled deposition at the atomic scale. One of the unique aspects of ALD is that it allows you to coat complex, 3D structures, even at the nanoscience">nanoscale, in the neighborhood of a billionth of a meter. You can repeat the ALD reactions to build up materials with different compositions and thicknesses.

For my MGM fellowship, I studied the fundamentals of how these ALD reactions happen. As scientists, we have simplified models of how ALD reactions take place. But there’s a lot of complexity in how these surface reactions occur that we don’t fully understand yet. I developed a new technique for studying how ALD reactions occur. I built a calorimeter that can measure the very small amount of heat that’s generated during these surface reactions, ultimately allowing us to study the relationship between heat, temperature, energy and other properties of ALD reactions. We were able to calibrate our detector down to a 50-nanosecond time resolution, which allows us to study the rate of chemical reactions. This is a whole new dimension of data that we didn’t have previously for understanding these reactions.

Q. What are some applications of ALD?

A. ALD is a great technique to use for applications that need uniform coating and precise deposition to as low as the thickness of an atom. We’re developing more advanced techniques like area-selective ALD, where the goal is to only coat certain areas of a substrate. This approach has important applications for processing semiconductors, the building blocks of computer chips. For instance, manufacturers use many layers of different materials to build computer chips, which are becoming smaller and more complex. ALD can help to create these smaller and more 3D designs. It also has applications for renewable energy since interface properties and semiconductor materials play a large role for solar energy and related technologies, such as batteries">batteries.

Q. What inspired you to apply to the MGM Fellowship?

A. When I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, I came to Argonne to use the Advanced Photon Source (APS). My experience at APS as a DOE user facility introduced me to the national lab system. Working with like-minded scientists helped me realize that Argonne provided a great opportunity to do cutting-edge research. Toward the end of my Ph.D., I was considering the next steps in my career. If you become a professor, you can do research and run a lab, but a lot of your time is dedicated to other activities like teaching. In industry, you can do interesting research and development work, but it’s not necessarily at the forefront of fundamental research, which is what excites me. To me, the national labs seemed like a happy medium between academia and industry. When I found out about the MGM Fellowship, it seemed like the perfect opportunity because it allowed me to propose and work on my own project for three years.

Q. How did the fellowship support your career development?

A. I started the fellowship in October of 2019 and finished in late 2022. It gave me the opportunity to learn how to be a principal investigator without being thrown directly into the deep end. I had my own project and funding, so I got to direct my own research and manage the finances, but I wasn’t alone. Alex Martinson, who was my sponsor for the MGM fellowship, was always there to answer questions about my research, managing a project and navigating Argonne’s systems. Now, as I move forward in my career, I feel more prepared to manage multiple projects and apply for new funding.

Q. What do you like to do outside of research?

A. When I’m not working, I like to get outside.  Some of my favorite activities include rock climbing, cross-country skiing, hiking and camping. I enjoy exploring nearby nature areas in Illinois and Wisconsin as well as traveling further abroad when I get the chance. 

Q. Why did you decide to stay at Argonne?

A. I’ve had a positive experience working at Argonne. It’s really nice to work with so many people who are passionate about research. Everyone is an expert in what they do and they’re committed to working together to push new ideas forward. Throughout my education, and during my time at Argonne, I transitioned from applied engineering to more fundamental science. My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering. Then I went to grad school and started working with ALD. When I joined Argonne, I became really excited about fundamental, cutting-edge research, which made me want to continue the work I’m doing because no one else has done this before. Having the opportunity, the facilities and the equipment to do that is why I stayed at Argonne.

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.