High frequency research is ‘high risk, high payoff’

Harnessing the capabilities of the terahertz wave could result in broad and major developments in imaging, namely in scanning for explosives and in non-invasive detection of skin cancer.

At the forefront of what is nicknamed “the terahertz gap” stands Professor Lisa Zurk, who recently received a five-year $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Portland State Professor’s research proposal is a mouthful: Electromagnetic Scattering and Propagation in Random Media at Terahertz Frequencies.”

Though the title may sound esoteric to those not scientifically inclined, Zurk’s research could result in real and applicable changes for the world. For example, it may allow for the safer removal of land mines in post-war countries. Zurk also noted that being a higher frequency wave allows for more precise images; thus expectant mothers could see clearer pictures of their babies to be.

The NSF panel that awarded Zurk’s grant identified her research as high risk, high payoff. High risk because little is known about this realm of science and high payoff because the results could be far reaching. The review panel lauded Zurk’s submission as “an excellent proposal that clearly articulates innovative concept. The broader impact of the project is extremely significant.”

Portland is on the cusp of some major technological developments, Zurk said. “Portland is poised for good things to come.”

She noted that PSU is in a prime position to be part of it. Zurk has been collaborating with MIT and University of Washington in research. “We’re rubbing elbows with high institutions,” she said.

Zurk joined the Maseeh College’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in January 2005 and is on tenure track. She tells her students of the importance of making strong connections. “The scientific community is smaller than you’d think,” she said. The networking Zurk spoke of isn’t the kind that occurs at cocktail parties, but from the reputation from producing quality work. “People respect you for what you do.”

As a woman in a male dominated field, Zurk stands out. “Engineering is one of the last bastions,” she said of closing the gender gap. MIT has less than 10 percent female faculty and she said her classes at PSU typically have fewer females. Regardless of why that is, Zurk noted the importance of having female role models for younger aspiring scientists to look up to. She wants to demonstrate that it is possible to be a scientist and have an enjoyable life.

Zurk tries to impart to her students that balance in life leads to innovation in the field. That is, the scientists she knows that sit in cubicles working day and night don’t have the presence of mind to think big thoughts. She said, though, that this can be a difficult balance to strike.

“It takes a lot to slog through complicated math and theory,” she said, and noted the challenge of making the tedious subjects interesting, accessible and enjoyable for her students.

Step into Zurk’s office and it becomes apparent that this woman leads an active and balanced life. With her swimsuit and goggles hanging in the corner and photos of the outdoors adorning her walls, Zurk was excited to move to the Northwest after spending ten years as a researcher for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. She and her husband have enjoyed the hiking and backpacking available to Portlanders.

The Pacific Northwest is familiar territory for the athletic scientist, as she earned her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Washington. Zurk said she is excited to be in Portland. “It’s where Seattle was before traffic and high real estate,” she said.

Nightlife in Portland has treated Zurk well. The Doug Fir is one of her favorite haunts to catch an indie pop show. “There is a different mentality on the West Coast,” she said of the shows she’s been to, “people are a lot less aggressive than in downtown Boston.”

Zurk said she also appreciates the restaurant scene. That is, when she is not traveling. She listed travel as a big appeal to joining academia. On the docket for the upcoming year is a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula to determine the health of the coral reef for the Nature Conservancy, a conference in Providence, R.I., a conference on mine warfare in Portugal and possibly a trip to China.