Materials science researcher plans for success

Required courses focused on careers are helping doctoral student Allen Wood choose a professional path.

When Allen Wood was a boy growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he had preoccupations suited to someone much older. At the age of 8, he absorbed the contents of a book by Richard Feynman on quantum theory given to him by his grandfather.

At 11, Wood took the family computer apart, spreading its components throughout the living room floor, resulting in a gentle rebuke from his father that the computer had better work when he put it back together.

At 15, during a neighborhood bicycle ride, he wondered how he could stay upright on two spinning wheels. The thought prompted a fascination with a fundamental concept in physics called angular momentum, which describes the rotational motion of an object around an axis and explains the stability of a bicycle in motion.

“When I observe something and it seems counterintuitive, my immediate go-to is ‘What physics is at play here?’” Wood said.

Wood graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in physics from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021. The next year, he entered the materials science doctoral program in the College of Arts and Sciences’ applied physical sciences department.

Now in the third year of his five-year program, Wood is working in the lab of Jinsong Huang, the Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor in the applied physical sciences department and adjunct professor in the chemistry department.

Wood’s research involves improving the performance of radiation detectors using perovskite, a special chemical compound that increases the efficiency and reliability of solar cells. Last year, he received the Best Oral Presentation Award for his work from the Consortium for Enabling Technologies and Innovation.

The career paths for such a talented student are seemingly limitless — an academic appointment, research in a national lab, industry research. In considering the options before him, Wood received guidance through two required applied physical sciences courses.

MTSC 710: Resources for Success in Your Ph.D. Program exposes students to research and key resources and skills outside of course work that they will need to be successful in the doctoral program and beyond. MTSC 711: Developing Your Plan for Success helps students create an individual development plan that entails a critical self-assessment, revealing which careers make sense for them.

The individual development plan isn’t a static document, said René Lopez, a professor and director of graduate studies in the applied physical sciences department. Students articulate their values and aspirations through a series of prompts and are encouraged to revisit the plan annually with their research adviser.

“We know that successful careers usually don’t happen without some planning and conscious effort,” he said. “Taking ownership of their path and tailoring the plan to their interests is the single most important element that makes a graduate student successful.”

When drawing up his own individual development plan, Wood discovered that he likes conducting basic research, working in a collaborative environment and teaching graduate students the concepts he has learned. But he doesn’t like grading, which deemphasizes subjectivity in favor of a rubric.

“The MTSC 710 and 711 courses were invaluable because they made me think about what motivates me,” said Wood. “I’m clear now on the things I like to do day to day, but I’m still undecided on my career path, which I like to view as being given a lot of unopened Christmas presents. It’s exciting to think about what might lie ahead.”