Alex Mellnik

A Research Path Follows a Magnetic Spin

By Stacy Kish on August 4, 2010

Photo credit: Lin Xue
Fellow: Alex Mellnik
Hometown: Charlotte, NC
Undergrad: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Graduate school: Cornell University
Keywords: Department of Energy, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Office of Science, Graduate Fellow program,  Cornell University, Topological Insulator

Growing up in Charlotte, NC, Alex Mellnik could turn to his grandfather, a retired electrical engineer, for exciting opportunities. “He helped me design a simple circuit in fifth grade,” begins Mellnik, “it worked once and then blew up. When I asked my grandfather why this happened, he told me he had an idea, but I should try to figure it out myself.”

With this valuable life lesson, Mellnik is now a doctoral candidate at Cornell University and a DOE Office of Science Graduate Fellow. His academic education is also tinged with serendipity. “I visited the University of North Carolina physics department as a high school student and I found a physics professor who took the time to tell me about the department and his research” he said. Three years later, Mellnik was searching for an undergraduate research project to work on and ended up in the same lab, thus beginning a research career examining magnetic systems.

Today Mellnik is working on two projects. “The first project deals with topological insulators,” he says. “A topological insulator looks like a normal insulator, but it has electronic states on the surface of the material that produces interesting properties.” The second project examines current-induced torques in nanomagnetic systems.

Mellnik admits that for his first project he is conducting fundamental work in a relatively new scientific field. “But it is the core of experimental science,” he said. His second project is in a more developed field and could have implications in magnetic random access memory.

Harkening back to his fifth grade experiment, Mellnik concludes, “Sometimes you come across things and it has a simple explanation, but most of the time you have to do the work and come up with the answer yourself.” Mellnik’s graduate fellowship is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Stacy Kish is a Science Writer with the Office of Science.