Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Gokul Gopalakrishnan

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Gokul
December 22, 2017

Dr. Gokul “Gopal” Gopalakrishnan had a lifelong love for science and solving puzzles, which led to a career in science and engineering education. Gokul is an assistant professor in the engineering physics department at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and has been here since 2013. He went to college in India, at the Indian Institute of Technology, where he majored in metallurgical and materials engineering. He has a Ph.D. in physics from The Ohio State University, was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Apart from teaching classes and conducting research, he is the faculty advisor for the Outdoor Adventure Club at UW-Platteville. In this role, he teaches workshops to club officers and members on climbing and mountaineering techniques, develops safety protocols, involves the club in conservation efforts, and assists with some of the club's climbing trips.

What brought you to the university?

I came here in 2013 to help start up and develop a newly created program called Microsystems and Nanomaterials. That program no longer exists, but some important parts of it still do. One of those things is the Nano Lab, where I teach classes and mentor students on research and independent study projects.  In the last few years, over 20 students have worked on research projects with me, and presented their work at local, regional and national conferences.

What is your favorite part about teaching?

My favorite part of teaching is the stuff that I teach, which is basically a mix of science, math and engineering. I think that these are all very useful things to understand and be able to use well, especially in combination with each other, but also they are really fun and enjoyable. I probably wouldn't do as good a job of teaching something I wasn't so excited about.

Are you currently involved in any research projects?

Yes, I'm involved with a handful of projects. I am wrapping up work on a collaborative project with UW-Madison to develop more sensitive yet robust devices known as MEMS pressure sensors. MEMS stands for "Micro ElectroMechanical Systems," and deals with devices and structures that are microscopic in size, like the widget in your cell phone that detects the downward direction of gravity and tells your screen to rotate when you tilt your phone. An offshoot of this work is a collaborative project that I’ve started up, with Mark Levenstein from the biology department. This project uses nano-engineering to tackle problems with biosensing for medical diagnostic applications. In collaboration with Jim Hamilton, a professor from the chemistry department, I'm studying ways to use a polymer material he developed, to reduce toxic waste products generated during the fabrication of microelectronics. And I'm partnering with faculty at UW-Parkside to study ways in which nanotechnology can be used to engineer properties, like the transport of heat and electricity, by fundamentally altering the way that atoms vibrate in a solid.

You're a climber outside of the university, why do you climb and what is your favorite climb?

I enjoy climbing for several reasons. In many ways, climbing is like solving a puzzle, whether it's the technical aspects of rope systems used to climb a big wall over several days, or simply the figuring out of the right combination of balance, body position and leverage needed to execute a single climbing move. There are two additional aspects of climbing that draw me to it. The first is the meditative nature of the activity – it serves as a way for me to decompress mentally from work. And the other is the exploratory nature of climbing, especially in remote locations deep in the backcountry. I enjoy this exploration, and cresting a summit to pristine natural vistas gives me a similar sense of satisfaction to discovering a cool piece of science. I can't pick a single favorite climb, but I find myself easily drawn to bigger climbs in remote mountainous areas that require technical travel over mixed terrain involving rock, snow and ice.

If you weren't teaching, what would you like to be doing?

Exploring! And as I mentioned earlier, I think of scientific research in a similar way to how I think of climbing or mountaineering – that they are both a form of exploration, and they give me a similar type of pleasure. More practically, and in the near term, there are a couple of journal papers and intellectual property disclosures I need to be working on. If I wasn't teaching, I'd be getting a jump on those.

Interview conducted by Ryan Kotajarvi, student writer, Communications. To nominate someone for the Pioneer Spotlight, contact pr@uwplatt.edu.

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