When Erik H. Hároz, a self-described reluctant over-achiever, arrived on the Rice University campus as a freshman in 1997, he “foolishly saddled” himself with a triple major – physics, chemistry and math.
“I was like that in high school, too—I ran the half-mile in track and field, and played viola, on top of all the academic stuff. I was fairly pig-headed,” said Hároz, who is 34 years old and earned his Ph.D. on May 11 in electrical and computer engineering (ECE).
Getting the doctorate was the culmination of a remarkable 16 years at Rice, which included working closely as an undergraduate researcher with a Nobel Laureate. In June, he moves to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to work as a postdoctoral research associate in its Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies.
“This is a great opportunity for me. My specialty is in nanophotonics, the spectroscopy of carbon nanotubes. I’ll be able to contribute something to the research in that field and learn a lot at the same time,” he said.
As a sophomore in the fall of 1998, Hároz took an honors general chemistry class taught by Richard Smalley, the Gene and Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Rice. Just two years earlier, Smalley, along with Robert Curl, also a professor of chemistry at Rice, and Harold Kroto at the University of Sussex, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, known as “buckyballs.”
“He was a great mentor. He had a unique ability to boil down a problem to its essentials,” said Hároz, who, in the summer of 1999, went to work as a researcher in Smalley’s lab in order to earn money for tuition. Eventually, he was working 50 to 60 hours a week in the lab and cutting back on time in the classroom.
“Erik is one of the hardest working and brightest students I’ve known in my career,” said Wade Adams, director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology for 10 years beginning in 2002, and now associate dean of engineering. “He was at the center of intellectual discussions in the Smalley Research Group and in the Armchair Quantum Wire meetings. He has produced 39 refereed scientific publications in top journals, an amazing feat that will be hard to beat for any student.”
In 2002, Hároz, Smalley and 12 co-authors published an often-cited and influential paper in Science – “Band gap fluorescence from individual single-walled carbon nanotubes.” Hároz’s principal contribution was devising a method for producing suspensions of individualized carbon nanotubes. In the summer of 2004, he worked as a researcher in the chemistry division of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
After Smalley’s death in October 2005, Hároz went to work for almost five years as a research associate in the lab of Junichiro Kono, professor in electrical and computer engineering, and of physics and astronomy, at Rice. His work focused on armchair carbon nanotubes, which possess electrical properties similar to metals.
Illness in the family delayed his schedule further, but Hároz finally earned the Ph.D. in ECE in May 2013. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Enrichment and Fundamental Optical Processes of Armchair Carbon Nanotubes,” and his advisers were Kono; Frank Tittel, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Robert H. Hauge, Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Chemistry.
“Very few students could have managed Erik’s unconventional career as a student without getting discouraged. He was able to do so because of an enduring interest in science and the support of his wife and a large supportive family,” Hauge said.
Hároz and his wife Elaine, a nurse at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, have two children – 2-year-old Olivia and 10-month old James. All will be moving to Los Alamos, where Hároz goes to work June 3.
“If everything goes well, my two years at Los Alamos could turn into something more permanent. I’m ready to move on and ready to keep learning more and more all the time,” he said.