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An interview with physicist Trevor David Rhone, 2022 recipient of the Joseph A. Johnson III Award, who tackles materials science with artificial intelligence.
By Sophia Chen | February 16, 2023
Credit: Jen Pazour
Trevor David Rhone
Each human technological era is defined by its materials: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, or today’s Silicon Age, if you will. Physicist Trevor David Rhone thinks we are approaching a Quantum Age.
To make the materials necessary to construct quantum computers, sensors, and more, Rhone is exploring a technique beyond mining and refining. He trains artificial intelligence models to explore the properties of yet-unmade materials. In fact, he’s developing AI that, when given a desired application, will tell you how to design a new material, “much like you might ask Alexa today for a recipe to bake a cake,” said Rhone, an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Rhone is the 2022 recipient of the Joseph A. Johnson III Award from the American Institute of Physics and the National Society of Black Physicists, for “scientific ingenuity and powerful mentorship and service.” He credits his success in part to father, the famed Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone, and his mother, Camella, who led Jamaica’s equivalent to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. “She sparked my interest in science in general, and curiosity about the world,” Rhone said.
Rhone spoke to APS News about his path to and in physics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re from Kingston, Jamaica. What was it like growing up there?
I lived in Kingston until I left for college. I came from a middle class family, and life in Jamaica was very comfortable. I went to a Jesuit high school called Campion College, one of the better schools in the country. My parents more or less allowed me to pursue whatever I wanted.
Academia in Jamaica is female-dominated. A lot of the girls in school did much better than the boys, so my vision of a bright student was often a woman. My mother was the embodiment of knowledge to me; when I’d ask her a question, she would always have the answer.
Your dad co-wrote The Harder They Come, the internationally acclaimed 1972 film. Were you aware of his fame growing up?
He's extremely famous in Jamaica. I was very proud of him when I was growing up and would often see his plays. One of his books was on the exam syllabus for the Caribbean regional examination, similar to the SATs. I remember one time going through customs at the airport and being asked if we were related.
When did you become interested in physics?
In high school, I had a wonderful physics teacher, Mr. Henry, who made the subject really fun. I pursued it in college because it was such a good experience.
In undergrad, I was also pre-med. My goal was to become a physician. In Jamaica, you have three career options if you’re bright — you can become a lawyer, engineer, or physician. When I was a teenager, I didn’t want to do law because I thought you had to study history, and I wasn’t good at history. Engineering to me meant wearing a hard hat and building bridges, which I didn’t think was interesting. Medicine seemed cool until I realized I didn’t like having to memorize things. Learning physics was more fun.
You studied 2D materials at graduate school in Columbia University. How did you become interested in this?
When I was looking for research groups at Columbia, I happened across the webpage of Horst Störmer, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for discovering the fractional quantum Hall effect. In this effect, particles in a material collectively behave as though they are fractions of charge when you confine them in two dimensions in a high magnetic field. I thought that was so bizarre. I ended up working with Aron Pinczuk, who pioneered the study of these systems using light scattering.
How did you get into AI?
I had the idea in grad school to combine artificial intelligence and materials research back in 2007 or so, to help my adviser on a project to grow graphene samples. I thought that AI could help us select the temperature and other parameters to grow these samples more consistently. The idea was in the back of my head, and in 2015, I wanted to move away from experiments. Data analysis is probably my favorite part of my research, so I started working in artificial intelligence for materials research.
What role does AI play in the materials discovery process?
For example, I was studying a material called chromium germanium telluride. It consists of a plane of chromium atoms in a hexagonal lattice, with a germanium atom and a tellurium atom below and above. If you swap the germanium for silicon, you dramatically change the material’s magnetic properties.
I wanted to know, how would the properties change if you replaced germanium with tin, manganese, or some other element? I calculated the possibilities — there are 30,000 variations on chromium telluride. A typical experiment takes a month or more to make a new material and characterize it, so it would take 30,000 months to explore all the variations.
Instead of making these materials, I simulated 200 of them over half a year. Enter AI. I trained the AI to make a mathematical model that related these simulated materials’ structures and chemical compositions to their properties. I could then interpolate that model to predict the properties of related materials that haven’t been simulated, in seconds. You can use this method on a laptop to quickly screen materials candidates for a particular application rather than making materials somewhat blindly based on chemical intuition.
You volunteer with the National Society for Black Physicists. How did you get involved?
I went to their meeting for the first time as a grad student. At the time, I was the only Black student in the entire department at Columbia. So it felt good at the meeting to be in a space where people looked like me, and I didn’t feel judged. I’ve been going every year since 2008, except the COVID years. In recent years, I’ve organized the condensed matter physics part of the conference. I’ve judged the poster competition and encouraged students to continue their education. One gratifying moment was when a student came up to me at the meeting and told me, “Hey, you’re the reason I’m still in grad school.”
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
When I was young, I was focused on finding exciting research to do. Looking back, this approach was naïve. It’s important to also research the people you want to work with. If they're toxic people, that can be damaging to your career. During my early years, I had some negative interactions with colleagues, where I felt some people wouldn’t even treat me like a human being. When I worked with a more supportive group, I felt I was free to actually do science.
Sophia Chen is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio.
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