Grad student Xiong looks to a future in academia

ECE News

Nathaniel Lash, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • ECE grad student Feng Xiong received the Mavis Future Faculty Fellowship and the Yee Memorial Fund Fellowship in recognition of his goal to enter academia.
  • As part of his fellowships, Xiong will learn grant proposal writing and will shadow faculty members.
  • In his research, Xiong has been studying carbon nanotubes and their use for inducing phase change of material.

Feng Xiong
Feng Xiong

ECE graduate student Feng Xiong knows what he wants to do. The College of Engineering recently awarded the aspiring engineering professor with two fellowships, the Mavis Future Faculty Fellowship (MF3) and the Yee Memorial Fund Fellowship, both of which are targeted at stand-out graduate students who want their next step to be into the field of academia.

“This gives me the drive to work even harder, because I know that’s what I want to do, and to be recognized for that is a great encouragement,” Xiong said.

The MF3 program also includes a training sequence designed to prepare recipients for an academic future, including grant proposal writing seminars and shadowing current faculty members.

“It’s amazing how my advisor is able to juggle all of his tasks and stay on top of everything,” Xiong said. “This fellowship provides a series of activities that will help teach me how to be a faculty member, and that’s going to be very helpful in my career.”

Xiong, who is part of ECE Assistant Professor Eric Pop’s research group, said his faculty adviser and mentor is the perfect role model for him. Working with Pop in his lab in the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, Xiong has been advancing the field of phase-change memory, made up of materials that remember binary 0s and 1s as the different electrical resistivity of two states, crystalline and amorphous. Xiong is excited by such technology, as it enables writing data faster and storing it longer and more securely than Flash, the leading nonvolatile memory device used in smart phones and portable electronics today. But what has been keeping this technology out of commercial computers and devices is the large amount of power required to switch between those two states.

“In order to operate phase-change materials, we need to heat up a certain volume to its melting temperature, up to 600 degrees Celsius,” Xiong said.

But Xiong and Pop, along with lab members David Estrada and Albert Liao, developed a process that uses carbon nanotubes to induce the phase change of the material. This, Xiong said, has resulted in a 100-fold decrease the power needed to switch 1s to 0s, a result for which he received the gold medal of the TSMC Outstanding Student Research Award and the Best in Session Award at TECHCON 2011. The groundbreaking result was featured on the cover of Science magazine in April 2011.

Since then, he’s been further refining the technique, developing a novel nanofabrication technique that reduces current leakage on his nanoscale devices, further decreasing the power required to induce phase change by another order of magnitude. Xiong and his colleagues now also have two pending patents with the Office of Technology Management on the work.

Xiong is also a recipient of the Yee Memorial Fellowship, an award generally geared toward Chinese students, particularly those who intend to return to China to teach engineering.

And that’s exactly what this Wuhan, China, native plans to do. Xiong hopes he can bring a more creative engineering education philosophy to students in Asia. He said the exam-oriented teaching, particularly in China, can stifle creative thought.

“There are a lot of good students and brilliant minds in China, but in terms of contributions to the world, there are not as many leading engineers coming out of China—not many inventions coming out of Chinese companies,” he said. “That can hopefully be changed by modifying the engineering education system.”

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