Carbon nanotubes may be strangers to most, but for Azure Avery (PhD ’13), they hold the magic of a pink, feather-light sugar nest disappearing on a child’s tongue.
“When raw, [carbon nanotube material] is this really soft, black, sooty-looking cotton candy,” Avery says. Those aren’t technical terms, and they don’t reflect the depth of Avery’s subject-matter expertise, but they do say a lot about her approach to physics.
For Avery, the world of physics is Disneyland, and carbon nanotubes are her favorite ride. In the handful of years since she earned her PhD in physics, Avery has spent her time exploring the potential of the tiny tubes through a collaboration involving DU, Metropolitan State University, where she is an assistant professor, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Although she had wanted to be a physicist early on — even beginning her undergraduate studies as a physics major — unexpectedly difficult coursework soured her relationship with the discipline. Avery took up psychology instead and earned her bachelor’s degree in that subject before eventually taking a job at Xerox.
At age 30, Avery went back to school and earned her bachelor’s degree in physics, followed by a master’s. When it came time to pursue doctoral studies, she enrolled at DU, where she found a home in Barry Zink’s lab, cutting her physics teeth on the now-famous nanotubes.
“I got to learn everything,” she says. “I got to learn how to work all of the equipment; I had opportunities to go and present work at conferences, which is where your networking starts. [Zink] really gives a lot of autonomy and support and opportunities to learn. That completely formed the researcher that I am today.”
When Avery isn’t stoking the passions of young physics students in her role as assistant professor, she’s working through a continued partnership with NREL and DU to further explore the potential of carbon nanotubes. Already, Avery has seen them used to create jackets capable of using body heat to charge cell phones, and she expects soon to see a carbon nanotube envelope that can harness heat waste created from outdated appliances.
Driven by an insatiable appetite for solving pressing problems, Avery cannot get enough of her job. “I feel very, very lucky and excited to be where I am, and I love what I do,” she says. “I just love to do things and see what happens and try to figure out what’s behind what I observe.”