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Robert Hull: Expanding on Strengths in Materials Science

Robert Hull’s distinguished career in materials science has its origins in his first glimpse through an electron microscope. At the time, he was an undergraduate at Oxford University, pursuing a degree in physics and working on an experiment that focused on the behavior of atomic-level defects in metallic materials.

“It was the first time I saw a structure at the atomic level,” Hull recalls. “I took one look and I was hooked.”

Hull went on to earn his Ph.D. from Oxford’s Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science and to become renowned worldwide for his expertise in nanotechnology. He joined Rensselaer in January as head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and as the Henry Burlage Professor of Engineering. Hull was drawn to the Institute by a combination of factors: the bold vision of The Rensselaer Plan, the emphasis on interdisciplinary research, and the opportunity to grow a department that already is held in high regard.

“I was impressed by the vision at the institutional level,” Hull says, “by the bold, innovative decisions that have sprung from The Rensselaer Plan, and the Institute’s willingness to invest where it believes there’s progress to be made.”

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He sees enormous potential to build on existing strengths in areas such as nanoscale science and engineering, polymer science and engineering, electronic materials, and computational materials science, and to expand breakthrough research in energy solutions and integrating materials into biological systems. Hull also points to the caliber of faculty and students and the collaboration among research disciplines.

“This is a culture where there’s a very strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research. That presents significant opportunities for growth,” he says, citing, for example, the interface between materials science and biology. Hull also intends to capitalize on more traditional areas of strength, such as metallurgy.

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, support for research in metals has waned. Now the pendulum has swung back, and there is a tremendous need worldwide for people who have a background in metallurgy,” he explains. “We want to maintain and expand upon our strength in this area so Rensselaer will be in the forefront, ready to fill that need.”

Hull shares the Institute’s commitment to providing research opportunities for undergraduates, both to expose them to the joy of discovery and to help them make decisions about the future.

“Some students will discover a tremendous passion for research,” Hull says, much as he did during that experiment years ago at Oxford.

Hull came to Rensselaer from the University of Virginia, where he was the Charles Henderson Professor of Engineering. He also directed the university’s Institute for Nanoscale and Quantum Science and its Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

In academia and industry, Hull is best known for his research into fundamental growth mechanisms of semiconductor films and nanostructures, and for his work in exploring potential applications of these structures to future nanoelectronic devices. He will continue this pursuit at Rensselaer.

A fellow of the American Physical Society, Hull also is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and, in 1997, served as president of the Materials Research Society. In 1993 he chaired the Gordon Research Conference on Thin Films and, in 1999, chaired the Committee of Visitors for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research. Hull has published more than 200 articles and presented at numerous national and international conferences.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.