Faculty Spotlight: Hanwei Gao

| Thu, 12/01/22
Associate professor of physics Hanwei Gao.
FSU associate professor of physics Hanwei Gao. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Hanwei Gao is an associate professor in the Department of Physics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. In 2004, Gao earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Science and Technology of China. He earned his doctoral degree in materials science from Northwestern University in 2009, and he has been an FSU faculty member since 2013. Gao has authored a total of 40 publications, and his research focuses on materials physics.

Tell us a little about your background and academic credentials.

I earned my bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Science and Technology in China and my doctorate in materials science from Northwestern University. I was a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Despite the training that I received in multiple disciplines, I would profile myself as a materials physicist, or someone who focuses on improving materials used across industries. Most of my research since graduate school has been physics-oriented, from electromagnetic waves in metal nanostructures and lasing actions in nanowires to light-matter interactions in new types of semiconductors.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

I was hired through the materials energy initiative, a program that, since its inception in 2012, seeks to grow the ranks of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the broadly defined areas of energy and materials. Thus far, this interdisciplinary effort’s focus has been on materials for energy production, conversion, storage and utilization. The College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Department of Physics, and Department of Scientific Computing work together with programs in the FAMU/FSU College of Engineering to work towards this goal.

I enjoy researching and teaching at FSU because of the incredibly collaborative environment FSU offers. Here, physicists, chemists, biologists, and experts in engineering with complementary expertise work together on cutting-edge projects. Such cross-disciplinary collaborations are critical to tackling challenges, particularly in materials research, which require knowledge from different fields. Our achievements in materials research also led to our success in securing research funds. I am proud to be a part of FSU, which has received the largest number of research grants from the Division of Materials Research of the National Science Foundation among the universities in the southeastern region.

Of course, the famed honey fried chicken served every Friday in our dining facility is also a huge plus to the delight of working at FSU.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

I initially chose to study materials physics out of concerns regarding the energy crisis. Not only are we facing the depletion of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, but the climate has also seen a negative impact due to the explosion of fossil fuel consumption in the past century. Developing new materials that can harvest renewable energy or consume energy in a more efficient manner is critical to addressing global energy needs. Materials physicists play essential roles in this field by discovering unconventional functionalities and understanding physical behaviors of the new materials.

What are your current research interests?

My current research focuses on a new class of semiconductors known as hybrid halide perovskites. Compared to conventional semiconductors such as silicon, these new materials can be synthesized using facile solution-based methods while exhibiting equivalent, if not superior, performance. For practical applications, hybrid perovskites have tremendous potential for developing cost-effective optoelectronic technology such as solar cells, LEDs and x-ray detectors. For fundamental sciences, incorporating organic and inorganic ions into one crystalline structure makes the hybrid perovskites a unique system to uncover unusual physical phenomena due to quantum confinement, exciton transport or symmetry breaking. Many of these phenomena are counterintuitive and not previously observed in other materials.

Can you break down your areas of interest for us?

The three main questions I strive to answer are how light interacts with hybrid halide perovskites, how crystal structures and physical properties are correlated, and how the properties evolve as the dimensions of the materials approach nanometer or sub-nanometer scales.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

Beyond the impact on scientific advancement and technological development, my integrated research and education program also provides training opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. Preparing them for the future as independent researchers is the most rewarding part of my work. The success of their careers will be essential to strengthening the research community and maintaining the United States’ leading role in the materials and semiconductor industry.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The best part of my job is that I get to work with great minds all the time. Together, we tackle challenges standing in the way of our exploration, are fascinated by intriguing, yet puzzling, phenomena, and cheer for scientific discoveries. It is simply enjoyable to interact with people with whom I can share my passion for science, whether they are my senior colleagues or junior students.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The most challenging part of the job also stems from the great minds I work with every day. To keep up with the rapid advancement in physical sciences and continue the enjoyable journey of scientific research, I cannot let my knowledge become outdated. To some extent, I will always be a student and never stop learning new developments in my field and related areas.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

Science is there for you to enjoy. While it is true that making new discoveries is often challenging, you do not have to be tortured by scientific research. It is like playing chess against a powerful opponent. You can be fascinated by a brilliant move even if that move leads to you losing the game. From my own experience, identifying research subjects I am truly passionate about provides a strong and long-lasting support for an enjoyable scientific career.