Physics Spotlight

January 2020
Physics Spotlight

Jun Yan

Ph.D., Columbia University (2009)

The Physics Department has chosen Associate Professor Jun Yan to participate in this month’s Physics Spotlight! His research interests center around Condensed Matter Experiments, specifically, work related to experimental solid state physics. He uses optical and electronic measurements with a focus on optoelectronic properties in crystal materials such as graphene in his research. Yan has been with the department for a few years now, but was recently promoted in 2019.  To find out more, please see his Q&A below!

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what? 

I studied physics as an undergraduate student at Nanjing University, China, and went to Columbia University for graduate school. I had a postdoc appointment at the University of Maryland, College Park for three years before joining UMass Amherst. 

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you pick your research topic?  What advice would you have for a student who is considering graduate school?

It seemed a natural choice for me at the time. When studying solid state physics, I was amazed by how the physical properties of materials can be harnessed to revolutionize modern electronics and technology. This was a big drive that pushed me towards condensed matter physics/solid state materials. Other than that, I was quite naïve about what research was like. For two years I wandered around different research groups in different departments at Columbia, trying various research topics. When graphene surfaced, I was immediately fascinated.  Looking back, I think I was lucky to find something amazing that enabled me to join its investigation from an early stage.

If you are considering graduate school, ask yourself early what research direction you’d like to pursue. You may or may not be sure, but it's very useful to simply try out. Start with an independent study, an internship, or summer research in a field you feel comfortable working in. This will allow you to have a tangible sense of what it's like. If time allows, you can try a few different labs/groups or even research directions, to see what works best for you.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into industry?

There are a variety of industries that like to hire physics students. I recommend doing some research and find out which ones are of interest to you. Try to get an internship at a company and see how it pans out. In addition to jobs in the private sector, there are many government positions for physics students. They also offer various internship opportunities that could be worth taking a look at too.

In 140 characters, explain your research:

We make atomically thin films of crystals and shine light on them to see how they respond.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

I have taught iLab for a few years and it mimics what we do in my research lab. I highly recommend students taking advantage of this class to hone skills in problem identification, analysis, solving, communication, collaboration, as well as presentation and reporting. These trainings are very beneficial for working in research labs and industry.

Do you take undergraduates in your research group?  What type of work do they do?  Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

I do take undergraduate students.  They are usually involved in some aspects of atomically thin crystal fabrication and characterization, but the objectives are typically different at times depending on what we focus on. I did publish papers with undergraduate students in the past, but I don’t think this should be a strong motivation for the student. It’s more important to get a sense what research is like and have an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

What is your favorite class to teach here at UMass?

iLab is great. I also enjoyed teaching graduate electrodynamics.

What do you like best about being a professor and a physicist at that?

You can figure out little mysteries of nature and be the first in the world to know the secret.

What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on in the past?

The graphene photodetector was the most interesting project and we have developed several versions of it. Atomically thin materials were not available prior for such devices and they appear to have some genuine advantages over bulk materials.  

What do you do outside of physics?  Do you have a hobby?

I enjoy biking when the weather is nice. I also go hiking sometimes – my two favorite spots are Skinner State Park and Mt. Sugarloaf. The New England view from the summit is spectacular.