Macro Impact in a Micro World

In a 2010 profile, the Chronicle of Higher Education called Dr. Jagdish (Jay) Narayan “the Michael Jordan of microelectronics.” Four years later, that line still sends the professor into peals of laughter.

“I haven’t talked to Michael about it,” Dr. Narayan deadpans. “So I don’t know how he feels about this connection between us.”

Jordan ought to feel pretty good about it. Dr. Narayan was honored this year with the University of North Carolina’s O. Max Gardner Award, recognizing more than 31 years of extraordinary service at North Carolina State University. In that time, Dr. Narayan has supervised 65 Ph.D. students, earned forty patents, published nine books, and led enormously important breakthroughs in computer memory and solid-state lighting (among many other things).“I haven’t talked to Michael about it,” Dr. Narayan deadpans. “So I don’t know how he feels about this connection between us.”

Dr. Jay Narayan

In the process, he became the Director of National Science Foundation Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures, won a roster of the most prestigious awards in the materials science field, made NC State’s Centennial Campus a world-class hub for nanoscience, and helped drive a nascent resurgence in North Carolina’s high-tech manufacturing sector.

“I love North Carolina,” he said in a recent interview, sweeping his arm across his third-floor office. “Nobody in this country has something like Centennial Campus.”

And nobody embodies the success of NC State's entrepreneurial campus better than Dr. Narayan. He first visited North Carolina in 1983, almost four years before ground was broken at Centennial Campus, and came away impressed with the University’s plan for closer partnerships between academia and industry. “I so admired the vision behind this place,” Dr. Narayan said.

He was reluctant to leave his work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he oversaw a small team of U.S. Energy Department scientists developing next-generation materials for safer, longer-lasting nuclear reactors. But Dr. Narayan was heavily courted both by NC State officials and then-Governor Jim Hunt. “They were so persistent,” he recalled. “In a nice way, you know.”

The move to Centennial Campus — a place where professors, students, and industry researchers bridge the gap between foundational science and real-world benefits — proved a perfect fit for Dr. Narayan’s own vision of engaged scholarship.

Dr. Jay Narayan with students at NC State

“There should be a smooth transition between science and technology and society,” he said. “I want to do science that benefits the society.”

And he has, on a scale few other researchers can match. Dr. Narayan’s work with nanomaterials has been vital in opening up new fields of computing and industrial design. By way of example, he swung his hand up toward the ceiling of his book-filled office.

“Take solid-state lighting,” he said,  “When we pass electricity through these fluorescent bulbs, fully 95 to 98 percent disappears as heat. Only about 3 or 4 percent emerges as light.”

The bulbs in just about every office in America, in other words, represent an enormous waste of energy.

“The solid state bulbs are just the opposite — mostly light, very little heat,” he continued. “For that technology to compete, for us to make bulbs that will last for fifty years and use one-tenth the energy, we had to develop a technology called nanostructuring. We had to create new nanomaterials.”

Key parts of that creation took shape in his lab, and are now in wide use among companies that manufacture the next generation of light bulbs. In solving what Dr. Narayan calls “a materials bottleneck” — the need for new materials to enable new technologies — he and his colleagues have paved the way for a transformational shift in the way we illuminate our lives. The U.S. Department of Energy credits solid state lighting with “the potential to reduce U.S. lighting energy usage by nearly one half and contribute significantly to our nation's climate change solutions.”

Similar ventures — in fields as diverse as computer memory, sensor technology, and ceramic engine materials — offer both immediate benefits (an infrared sensor built directly into a computer chip, or lighter car parts with greater heat tolerance) and the longer-term prospect of revitalizing American manufacturing. That goal, more than anything, drives Dr. Narayan’s work.

“This is how we stay competitive,” he said. “Other parts of the world are less expensive, but we will have the most valuable technologies.”

Preserving the country’s role as a center for innovation and high-tech manufacturing will also demand a renewed focus on science education.

“We need to value science more for younger students,” Dr. Narayan said. “American kids are the smartest in the world, but if you jump right into the higher level science without the right background, of course it all looks like Latin.”

He points out that his NC State students, especially those who pursue Ph.D.’s in scientific fields, have little trouble finding well-paying work after graduation.

“I train my students to think about applications for research, and I think it has been really successful,” he said. “Intel loves to hire my students. They’ve hired something like 20 of my Ph.D.’s over the years, and I’m really proud of it. Those students are getting salaries in the six figures, and these are jobs that are semi-permanent.”

More than just highlighting salaries, though, Dr. Narayan thinks that high school students need to better understand the impact that science can have on the world around them. He recalls the sense of possibility he felt when coming to the United States in 1969, fresh from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, one of the best engineering schools in India.

“When I landed in San Francisco, I was so fascinated by this country,” he recalled. “Americans had just put a man on the moon! I wanted to be part of all of this excitement, and I had so much fun doing research.”

It was supposed to take five years to finish a master’s and a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley; Narayan got done in two. “I said to myself, ‘This is the most wonderful opportunity in the world, and I don’t want to waste it.’ I would get to campus at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning to get started.”

Creating that kind of enthusiasm for science, Dr. Narayan believes, will mean drawing clear connections between basic research and real-world progress. Materials science, in particular, offers ready examples of how seemingly abstract problems can have a rapid, measurable impact on day-to-day life. Creating a domain matching epitaxy — one of Dr. Narayan’s most prominent innovations — doesn’t necessarily sound exciting, unless you know that it can be used to create a 1-centimeter memory chip capable of storing the entire Library of Congress a few times over. In short order, his laboratory discovery could improve computer memory by an order of magnitude.

“The future is in using less and less material to do more,” Dr. Narayan explained. “As we deplete our resources, and especially a lot of critical materials, you have to find alternatives and use less of them. For that, you have to shrink the size of the system.”

Making sure basic science carries that sense of mission is one of Dr. Narayan’s key strategies for recruiting students. He recently tackled that subject at the Materials Research Society Meeting in San Francisco, where he not only spoke about new frontiers in nanoscience and nanotechnology, but also gave a well-received talk on “A Holistic Approach to Training and Mentoring Next Generation Materials Scientists.”

The National Science Foundation took note, inviting him to present on mentoring strategies at an upcoming NSF gathering in Washington.

The second slide of Dr. Narayan’s presentation lays out his philosophy quite clearly, showing direct connections between academic research and real-world results.

“This is the fun part,” he says, pointing at the arrows on his screen linking Nanoscience to Nanotechnology to Manufacturing. “When you make this transition from research to manufacturing, you do something good for the society. You improve the quality of human life.”


“Electronics Pioneer Sheds Light on the Satisfactions of Science.” Chronicle of Higher Education. June 6, 2010.

Written by Eric Johnson


Dr. Narayan on UNC-TV's North Carolina Now