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In search of new ways of producing nano-materials

Kong’s research focuses on how to make and control novel forms of thin-film carbon.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

A life in academia was a natural career path for Jing Kong, the daughter of two Chinese academics at Tianjin Finance and Economics University: Her father taught and was editor of a journal, and her mother was in the university’s foreign trade department and later worked with graduate students.

Last year, after seven years at MIT, Kong was granted tenure as the ITT Career Development Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering.

Her interest in science and technology started, as it does for many people, with an inspiring teacher. “I had many very good teachers,” Kong recalls, but there was “one in particular, a teacher of physics in middle school , Baoyi Liu. He gave me a lot of encouragement, and helped me to be interested” in the subject.

While in high school, “I took part in math, physics and chemistry competitions. I was chosen for the preparation class for a chemistry Olympics,” Kong says. Although she didn’t end up being chosen for the team, her year of preparation for the event at a Beijing high school entitled her to admission to one of China’s top universities. She chose Beijing University because of its close proximity to her hometown.

Kong studied English during her undergraduate years, encouraged by many of her classmates who were planning to go abroad to finish their studies. After graduating in 1997, she decided to attend Stanford University for graduate studies — because, she says, its acceptance letter was first to arrive.

At Stanford, Kong began studying carbon nanotubes, microscopic cylinders formed by single-atom-thick sheets of carbon, which were by then a hot research area. She credits her “very talented” thesis advisor, Hongjie Dai, for the fact that her research in that field, which focused on finding better ways of synthesizing the material, was “very fruitful, and produced quite a lot of publications.”

Working with several other graduate students, Kong found what turned out to be a very effective way of improving the production of nanotubes and controlling their growth, which made it much easier to produce electronic devices from them. “It turned out to be very useful,” she says, and the team shared the technique with many other research groups.

While she enjoyed her work at Stanford, Kong eventually felt burned out and a bit lost, and began questioning the meaning of her efforts — so she joined a campus evangelical fellowship. At first, she says, “I was very much resistant to that idea that there is a God, but my perception changed after a seminar and discussion there.” By the time she graduated, she recalls, she had become a Christian; ever since, she says, her faith has played “a critical role in my life.”

Kong’s first job after earning her doctorate was as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, near the Stanford campus. (Her husband, He Dong, an electrical engineer whom she had met at Beijing University and then married while pursuing her doctorate, already had a job in the Bay Area.) But she found pure research unsatisfying, and longed to return to an academic environment where she could work with students and spend her life in a more meaningful way, sharing her religious faith with others. She received an offer from MIT, and after a brief stint as a postdoc at Delft University in the Netherlands, she started work at the Institute in 2004. She and her husband are now raising two daughters.

Kong’s research at MIT has continued to focus on carbon nanomaterials, including nanotubes and graphene sheets. She has pioneered a new method of producing large sheets of graphene — previously available only in tiny flakes — and is continuing to work on improving the method. “I want to improve the quality of the material we make, and share the methods with colleagues,” she says.

With carbon nanotubes, she has focused on developing ways to use the tiny structures as extremely sensitive chemical detectors for toxic gases, and ways of integrating them into new kinds of electronic devices.

Kong is emphatic about what is most important to her. “The research is only a platform for me to do God’s work,” she says. “His creation, the way he made this world, is very interesting. It’s amazing, really.”

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