Home » Five Minutes WithSpring 2012

Five Minutes with Anthony B. Hmelo

by Nelson Bryan, BA’73 No Comment

Tony Hmelo’s research has taken him from NASA to nanoscience and from New York to Nashville.

Hmelo is associate director for operations and outreach for the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, the interdisciplinary group researching new science and technology based on tiny—nanoscale—materials. (Nanotechnology is widely considered the next great scientific frontier.)

As research professor of physics and of materials science and engineering, Hmelo himself is interdisciplinary, since he holds appointments in both the College of Arts and Science and the School of Engineering.

Tell us why you came to Vanderbilt.

I have always been interested in the science and engineering of materials. I arrived at Vanderbilt in 1988 shortly after receiving my Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. While earning my degree, I held down a job to design and manage an X-ray research beam line at the National Synchrotron Light Source…my first engineering career.

I had the opportunity to work with researchers from all across the nation who used that facility to characterize different kinds of single crystal materials, including some very interesting specimens that were manufactured in space. This captured my imagination and resonated with one of my childhood aspirations—to become an astronaut.

Vanderbilt was staffing the new Center for Microgravity Research and Applications under the direction of engineering professor and former astronaut Taylor Wang. I saw an opportunity to link my passion for materials with my childhood dream, and Vanderbilt became my ticket to ride, literally.

How did you come to join VINSE?

The late 1980s and 1990s were an exciting start to my materials science career at Vanderbilt. I was a co-investigator for several fluid physics experiments that flew on three different space shuttle missions. In support of those experiments, I think I visited every NASA center several times, tested flight hardware aboard zero-gravity aircraft, worked with and helped train the mission specialists who flew and conducted the science on-orbit, and was able to support the missions in person inside the Payload Operations Center in Huntsville, Ala.

But nothing lasts forever. During the mid-1990s, national priorities changed, and new opportunities emerged. Visionary Vanderbilt faculty worked to establish the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in 2002. This was an opportunity for me to shift gears and take on new challenges. I formally joined VINSE in 2003, in time to manage the construction of the original core laboratories.

Can you explain the “clean room,” “bunny suits” and other things unique to VINSE?

Imagine preparing a novel material or engineering a new device with critical features so tiny that dust particles floating in the air make the difference between success and failure during the manufacturing process.

At VINSE we provide a special environment called a clean room, where we take great care to control the presence of these airborne contaminants. At 1,636 square feet, this is the largest general-purpose facility of its kind on campus. The laboratory air is scrubbed clean after passing through a grid of HEPA filters comprising the ceiling of the room.

Students don bunny suits to enter the clean room.

Bunny suits are special white garments we wear over our street clothing that zip closed, and together with a hair cap, shoe covers and other safety items, help protect the room from potential contaminants that may be present on our persons. The room is brightly illuminated and constructed of white panel walls with glass windows. With users in their white bunny suits, the laboratory can appear surreal.

You’re also a safety manager. What is an interesting safety issue you’ve dealt with, and do you have a safety-related pet peeve?

We perform cutting-edge work that involves the routine use of hazardous chemicals and flammable and toxic gases in a confined space. These need to be managed carefully and disposed of properly.

My challenge is to work with my staff to ensure that all users are well-trained in clean room procedures. At any given time, we have around 100 authorized users of the facility, with a large turnover every semester. The lab constantly evolves over time with the addition of new equipment and new hazards. Keeping the changing user population informed of the changing laboratory hazard profile is a significant challenge.

If I must name a pet peeve, it is that too many people need to be reminded to wear their personal protective equipment: safety glasses, gloves, lab coats, etc. I understand that users are focused on their research and my responsibility is to make sure they go home at the end of the day able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

What’s a work week like for you?

I understand that users are focused on their research and my responsibility is to make sure they go home at the end of the day able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

I spend my typical week maintaining and repairing instruments, attending research group meetings, writing proposals to acquire new instruments and improve facilities, engaging in outreach activities that give talented high school students in middle Tennessee an opportunity to learn more about Vanderbilt and VINSE, and training users. There are many administrative duties required to keep the laboratories running properly that ensure I am constantly occupied.

One of my priorities is to spend at least a few hours every week working with students on projects of particular interest to me, such as novel applications for diamond films and devices.

In your transition from New York to the Southeast, do you miss certain things from there and have you taken a shine to certain things down here?

When I lived in the New York area, I enjoyed having ready access to the cultural amenities, especially off-Broadway theater, the Public Theater in particular. I miss Montauk Point in the summertime and its dramatic seascape. However I have learned to love the Southeast and consider myself a true Nashvillian. I know every trail around Radnor Lake like the back of my hand. If you cannot find me at the symphony, you might look for me at the Bluebird Cafe. I even have my own black-eyed pea recipe I fix every New Year’s Day.

photo credit: John Russell, Steve Green

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