Determination is the guiding principle that resonates through Kamal Harrison’s heart and mind from childhood to UCF’s labs and post-graduate aspirations.

His undergraduate research – identifying the properties of a unique type of quantum material known as a topological insulator  – garnered significant interest and was published recently in the highly regarded journal ACS Nano.

The results could be used to discover new applications of the materials, which conduct electricity on the outside and insulate on the inside, in the next generation of electronics, spin-based electronics (spintronics), and quantum computing devices.

Harrison achieved this feat early in his career by refining his interest in physics and gaining valuable experience through the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Center for Ultrafast Dynamics and Catalysis in Emerging Materials (C-UDCEM), a partnership between UCF and the University of Washington (UW), and with the confidence and mentorship of the center’s director, professor Saiful Khondaker of Physics and Nanotechnology at UCF.

“I had not heard of anyone doing physics before, so I did not know the path or what it took to succeed,” Harrison says. “I enjoyed learning physics, so I wanted to get experience working in the labs. It was also my chance to know if I could succeed in the field.”

Uplifting, Developing, and Succeeding

The C-UDCEM helped Harrison succeed. The center was established in 2021 and is part of the larger NSF Partnership for Research and Education and Materials (PREM)  program. The program’s goal is to uplift and develop promising students from minority or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“PREM provided me with hands-on experience and financial support that allowed me to quit my job and focus on physics full-time,” Harrison says. “It has not only given me laboratory experience but has also provided me with soft skills to expand my career as a scientist.”

Coming from a low-income family didn’t discourage Harrison from pursuing his dreams. At 17, he moved in with his grandfather so that he could attend a better-quality high school. He worked a retail job to save money for a car and community college, which then led him to UCF.

The PREM center at UCF also leverages its partnership with UW for collaboration via research and exchange programs. After spending about six months in Khondaker’s lab, Harrison went to UW for 10 weeks as a PREM exchange student and worked in Professor Jiun-Haw Chu’s lab.

The crystal structures he studied while at UW still had much to be discovered, so Harrison continued his work at UCF with the help of other students.

“This experience allowed me to see what could be done at a high level, especially the attitudes and logistical skills necessary to achieve a lot in a short time frame,” he says. “I emailed professors at both institutions and leveraged the collaboration to start my own project. Through this experience, I gained confidence in my ability to conduct my own research and present it to the scientific community.”

Watching Harrison grow as a researcher has been incredibly gratifying to Khondaker and his success is proof of the utility of C-UDCEM, he says.

“The journal where it got published is one of the most prestigious journals in the interdisciplinary research of materials, physics, chemistry and nanotechnology,” Khondaker says. “For an undergraduate student to conceive, lead a project and get it published in a very prestigious journal is an impressive achievement and speaks highly about Kamal and the opportunity he got through the PREM center.”

About the Research

Harrison discovered properties of a new, layered topological insulator made of tantalum, nickel and tellurium (Ta2Ni3Te5) that make it unique. Using transmission electron microscopy and polarized Raman spectroscopy, his research revealed the in-plane anisotropic (directional-based) properties of the topological insulator.

“When we first started growing the material at UW there were no experimental papers published on the material,” he says. “It is part of a larger crystal class that has recently gained a lot of attention for its topological effects and layered behavior, meaning it can be reduced to two dimensions. Its anisotropic nature gives different properties in different directions for each layer of the material.”

His discoveries provide greater information on the material and opens the door for further research.

Future Work

Since his undergraduate research was published, Harrison has contributed to two additional materials studies, presented his research at industry conferences, and was published in the Bulletin of the American Physical Society.

He strongly believes there are many talented young people like himself who have yet to refine their potential and benefit from experience and mentorship.

“Undergraduate research is extremely valuable, and I encourage all who may be interested to try it,” Harrison says. “Some people will realize it’s not for them, and that’s okay. Others will love it, and it will motivate them to finish their degree and possibly continue research as a career. For me, it was like an extracurricular activity in my field that was mentally stimulating and allowed me to do new things that had never been done before.”

The success and recognition that Harrison experienced through his research is something Khondaker hopes can be extended to other promising students.

“Our mission in the center is to provide cutting-edge research training and creating opportunities for underrepresented minority students,” Khondaker says. “Kamal is a successful example of that.”

Undergraduate students pursuing degrees in science or engineering may apply to the C-UDCEM program to use resources and mentorship for quantum materials and catalysts research.

Researchers’ Credentials:

Harrison received his bachelor’s degree in physics from UCF and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Florida. He continues to keep in contact and collaborate with his mentors and colleagues at UCF.

Khondaker is the director of C-UDCEM. He previously served as the nanotechnology M.S. program director at UCF. Khondaker joined UCF in 2005 as an assistant professor, became an associate professor with tenure in 2010 and was promoted to full professor in 2017.