Using the Force: Force microscopy research nets Ph.D. student a scholarship—and a job—with DOD 

Jorge Muñoz in the lab

Jorge Muñoz, a Ph.D. student in NAU’s Department of Applied Physics and Materials Science, recently received the U.S. Department of Defense’s SMART Scholarship, which provides tuition and all education-related expenses, a stipend, research and mentoring opportunities. Muñoz also will work for the DOD after he graduates. It means, instead of worrying about finding a job, he can focus on his work and his career goals within DOD.

The award is evidence of the type of scientist he’s become through his years of schooling.

“One of the things that we’ve been trained to become is very versatile—to be an interdisciplinary scientist, so we don’t always have to stick to one field,” Muñoz said. “We can dip our hands pretty much wherever we can and use our ability to learn so that we can learn whatever it is we need to in any different environment. So I’m very enthusiastic to see what kind of opportunities this will bring.”

“From the beginning, I appreciated Jorge’s willingness to adapt and be open to exploring new research ideas and concepts,” Montaño said. “He’s quickly gained an array of experience in multiple techniques and project coverage that will not only result in very nice Ph.D. research but make him a valuable scientist moving forward. I think this is something the DOD has recognized, and I am so excited for the opportunities this amazing fellowship will bring him!”

Coming to NAU

Muñoz, who is originally from Puerto Rico but moved to Tucson in 1997, began his life as a Lumberjack in 2013. The journey from there to here, though, is a bit “spicier.” He came as a master’s student in what was the Department of Physics and Astronomy, but he ran into trouble with his thesis, then ran out of money and decided to move back home to Tucson.

During his grad school hiatus, Muñoz became an adjunct faculty and then a lab specialist at a community college. He met a woman who quickly became his wife, and they followed up their wedding with a month and a half roaming through Europe. It was a honeymoon that was interrupted with playing a few shows with Muñoz’s metal band. He plays the bass guitar.

After returning to Arizona, the pair relocated to Deer Valley so Muñoz’s wife could attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. When she finished, Muñoz decided it was time to finish his master’s degree. He reached out to what is now the Department of Applied Physics and Materials Science to see about picking up where he left off.

His query landed in the inbox of department chair Gabriel Montaño, who was impressed with the research Muñoz had done up to this point. He offered to be Muñoz’s master’s adviser when Muñoz reapplied to NAU to finish his master’s; Montaño was impressed with his application and his story. It only took a few months before Montaño suggested a different route—going straight for a doctorate. Muñoz liked the option and transitioned into the Ph.D. program. He is now a year to 18 months from finishing his degree.

Force microscopy research

Muñoz’s research is focused on using a type of microscope, called an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), to measure materials properties with extremely high-resolution. The approaches he is utilizing and developing allow him to interrogate a variety of materials ranging from artificial aneurysm models to reRAM technology because they allow him to probe much smaller than the limit of typical optical microscopes.  To be able to interrogate such systems, Muñoz is not just using existing technologies, but developing his own technology along the way in the form of probe design.

His research has been done through the Center for Materials Interfaces in Research and Applications (¡MIRA!), a pioneering research center with a dual focus on materials science and increasing diversity in STEM fields. Jennifer Martinez, a professor and ¡MIRA! director who has worked with Muñoz in his research, his research was an excellent fit for the DOD.

“Through this DOD SMART fellowship, Jorge will gain valuable experience in the use of force microscopy to understand structure and electronic function at the interface of defects and hard materials,” Martinez said. “Understanding not only the structure of nano materials but also their function is incredibly important, and Jorge will take the knowledge and expertise he is gaining here in ¡MIRA! And NAU to the DOD. I have greatly appreciated working with Jorge here at NAU, and I am sure his great skill and personality will be greatly appreciated by his colleagues at the DOD.”

The SMART application process

When he decided to apply for this, Muñoz found himself staring down a lengthy and involved application process. That’s not exactly unusual; most large grants and scholarships ask for personal statements and research statements and more. But the DOD, considering they’re actually hiring these scholarship winners, also asked for how the work fit into the DOD projects and what department would sponsor an applicant.

“The way that this differs from any of the other applications and grants is it involved more than just a personal statement,” Muñoz said. “It involved me answering questions regarding my desire to be part of the DoD workforce, how I might contribute and how they would benefit me, what kind of research I would be conducting that might overlap with any of the sponsoring facilities, and I had to iteratively attack this process with my adviser.”

He wrote several drafts of each of the necessary statements and getting edits from mentors Montaño, Martinez, former postdoc Matthew Rush and Gregory Uyeda, manager of the lab and research facility in APMS. Muñoz also did significant research into various DOD facilities to learn what their needs are; from there, he also had to work on framing his research using their vocabulary and addressing the facilities’ unique needs.

It was a long but ultimately fruitful process. In an average, DOD receives about 2,500 applications, and between 13 and 17 percent are selected.

“It’s not that they have a cutoff, it’s just finding a good fit, which I think was the goal here,” he said. “I found a great facility to sponsor me and was able to sell myself in the right way and everything lined up nicely.”

Muñoz also offered advice to future applicants, starting with being a stickler for organization.

“The most beneficial thing that one can do is to immediately start with a timeline of what are the required tasks and that you have structured it in a particular way that allows you enough time to work on those things.”

His other advice:

  • Talk to your advisers early, and make sure they’re familiar with your academic and research history.
  • Order transcripts. That seemingly easy task can take a lot longer than you think.
  • Contact your reference letter writers.
  • Start writing and revising early so you have plenty of time to review and revise.

And, most importantly—apply again, if you don’t receive the scholarship this time. The tenacity helps for applying for grants as well as deciding to go back to school and picking up where you left off, as another of Muñoz’s mentors observed.

“One of the most admirable traits I’ve noticed in Jorge since working with him on his research is his persistence,” Uyeda said. “There exists a fairly substantial jump in expectations between undergraduate and graduate studies, particularly in the research lab. This difference can often be a source of frustration for students as they feel that these expectations are unreasonable. What they don’t often understand is that they are reasonable precisely because we can see their capability and know that with proper guidance and effort, they can meet these expectations. Jorge has definitely experienced such frustrations, but at every stage he has been willing to work through these difficulties. I hope that in the receipt of this fellowship Jorge will see that it is not just us here at NAU that can see his promise but researchers and scientists at some of this nation’s top research facilities see this as well.”

SMART Scholarships are funded by the Under Secretary of Defense-Research and Engineering, National Defense Education Program and BA-1, Basic Research.

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications