Research Communications

Kersell receives regional Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award 

By Andrea Gibson
April 12, 2012

Heath Kersell, a doctoral student in physics at Ohio University, has received the 2012 Distinguished Master's Thesis Award from the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS). The award recognizes his research on molecular machines, a promising new area of nanotechnology.

Forty-two colleges and universities across the region nominated outstanding graduate student theses from a wide variety of disciplines. Kersell and Megan Tesene from Northern Iowa University received the award during a ceremony April 11 in Chicago. Kelly Harper Berkson from the University of Kansas received honorable mention.

 Heath Kersell and Saw-Wai Hla
Doctoral student Heath Kersell, left, works with nanoscientist Saw-Wai Hla, right, on molecular machines. (Photo courtesy of Saw-Wai Hla.)

"For Heath, this is a big deal professionally because his work is being recognized as significant, not just within the STEM or physics community, but as a major contribution to the body of human knowledge," said Daniel Phillips, an Ohio University professor of physics and astronomy and department graduate chair. "The award also provides external recognition that the work being done at Ohio University is competitive with work that's being done at the best universities in the country."

Phillips led the committee that nominated Kersell from the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Based on an internal selection by the Graduate Council, the Graduate College forwarded Kersell as Ohio University's nominee for the competition. Kersell is the institution's first recipient of the award in more than a decade. Past recipients have been students at schools such as Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati, University of Missouri, Columbia and Purdue University, according to the association.

Kersell, who works with physics professor Saw-Wai Hla, studies the development of machines at the nanoscale, where matter behaves in unexpected ways.

"Just like other machines, they need some sort of energy to operate," he said. "My research focuses on a type of molecular rotor that's a candidate for not only a source of energy inputs for nanoscale machines, but also as a potential component for other more complicated devices under development at the molecular scale."

Kersell's work involved depositing single molecular motors on a metallic surface and operating them with electrons, Hla explained.

"Heath has done extraordinary work for his master's thesis. This is pioneering work that will result in a quantum leap for nanomachine research," said Hla, who noted that the team is working with scientists from France and Singapore on the project.

Working in the Hla lab not only led to interesting new findings in nanotechnology, but helped Kersell gain experience with the scanning tunneling microscopy equipment necessary to carry out the experiments, he said. His research also exposed him to issues in chemistry and biology, as well as physics.

That experience led Kersell to his current internship at the Argonne National Lab near Chicago, where he is building a new scanning tunneling microscope that he anticipates using for a few experiments before returning to Ohio University in the fall.

Kersell's nanoscience research has opened the door to international travel as well. While Kersell was still an undergraduate student, Hla selected him for a three-month internship at the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Last year, he participated in another three-month research experience at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Both trips were funded by a National Science Foundation PIRE grant awarded to Hla and colleagues in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Kersell, a native of Logan, Ohio, began his education at the Ohio University-Lancaster campus.

"The experience at OU-Lancaster was great," he said. "The physics class had only four students, so we got a lot of personal attention from the professor."

His education and research in the applied area of nanotechnology has helped him realize a longtime dream to use science to uncover the mysteries behind the way our world works.

"I wanted to do a career that helps me find out those secrets, but also do something useful for the world," he said. "I thought that physics could do both."