An associate professor of physics and a specialist in nanotechnology, Mohammad Islam holds a patent related to his research on rechargeable batteries. Long interested in sustainable energy technologies, Islam employs undergraduate interns, providing them with skills to go on to other opportunities in research.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Bangladesh. I came to the United States in 1991, right after my high school graduation.

Why did you decide to study in the United States? 

For me, I always loved physics. Physics came easy to me, and I wanted to be a physics doctorate. In Bangladesh, they didn't have a physics doctorate at that time. Perhaps they have one now.

When did you hear about a job in physics at SUNY Oswego?

I did my Ph.D. at Columbia University, finishing in 2003. After that, I was a post-doc at Pennsylvania State University. I wanted to teach and I wanted to do research in physics and I wanted to stay in New York. I got used to the New York way of life when I got my Ph.D. I actually got married when I was working on my Ph.D. I consider myself a New Yorker through and through. I saw an advertisement for this position in AIP, American Institute of Physics Journal. To me, SUNY Oswego was an easy choice to teach and do the kind of research I'm interested in doing.

What is your current research passion?

I'm a firm believer of environmental stewardship. I do believe it's up to us that our climate and our environment remain good for our future generations. I have always been interested in sustainable energy technology. Sustainable energy devices -- using solar, wind -- depend on nature, but nature is intermittent. What we need is a way of harnessing the energy at the peak activity. That's done through batteries. My research is on rechargeable batteries. I have worked with lithium ion batteries previously, and I have published papers on that work in journals and gotten good reviews. Lithium is, however, one of the rare earth materials. Sodium, on the other hand, is in virtually unlimited supply in the earth and the oceans. Sodium is much more available and cheap compared to lithium. And sodium is an element that's very close to lithium in the periodic table. So my current research is improving the properties of sodium ion batteries.

We understand you hold a patent.

A battery has something called an anode and a cathode -- those are two electrodes, separated by an electrolyte. I did my Ph.D. on nanotech, where we make small packages of materials. These materials are extremely small, (measured) in nanometers, billionths of a meter. What we have shown in our publications is that these nanomaterials -- even if they are made up of the same bulk materials that other people use -- have fundamentally different properties, and they can be useful in battery technology. Assembling these materials into a device and packaging it is where my research comes in. I came up with a new methodology of assembling these little particles that's called electrophoretic deposition (onto the electrodes). We started the patent process in 2003. A patent needs to be protected, so there are lawyers involved. By the time I was awarded my patent, it was close to 2007 or 2008. A patent is, in most cases, on a small part of the technology. My advice to up-and-coming scientists is to think about what you can do uniquely. It doesn't have to be very big, but it has to be unique and very useful. 

Are undergraduate students valuable in your research?

Fundamental research on materials is a repetitive process. We are looking for a sweet spot where a combination of some percentage of some material, some rotation speed, some mixing temperature has to be zeroed in for a particular material to work. You narrow down your parameter space until you come up with a set of parameters that can be repeated many, many times. That's technology. For me as a professor, it's not possible to do all those experiments over and over again -- I have to teach, I have to write proposals (for grants) so I can support my student interns, and I have to read a lot to understand what other people (in the field) are doing. Students carry on a lot of work in those experiments.

What are the benefits to your interns for this hard work?

I look for students that are really, really dedicated. They're the ones I talk to. I show them examples of where my previous students went (to other undergraduate research opportunities, graduate school or the workplace) who worked with me before; in most cases, they agree to do the research work. I tell them it's not going to be fun at first, because it's a repetitive process. When you get some results that you publish, that's when the research is going to be fun. Two of my students this year, Jared Bouldin and Joshua Willson, are going with me to the U.S. Department of Energy lab in Golden, Colorado -- the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It's a visiting faculty program and I am allowed to take two students who show some promise to work there. It's all expenses paid, with a stipend. In most cases, if the students show promise, they can get into federally funded research programs. 

What do you think about SUNY Oswego students?

Students are smart. When I talk with them qualitatively about concepts and how things work, they understand. Physics also requires quite a bit of understanding about mathematics. When you try to quantify things, that’s when I see many students start veering off. That’s a problem I think we have to solve.

We understand you are participating in a grant for clean energy.

Yes, SUNY PIF, Performance Improvement Fund, (a grant) written as a collaboration between three of us: myself, Hui Zhang of electrical and computer engineering, and the (former) dean (of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), Adrienne McCormick. We asked for equipment funding, for student assistantships, travel grant, our faculty summer stipend. SUNY was generous to provide enough money for all of that. I have funds to have three students working with me throughout the year. Two are from Oswego, the other is from Onondaga Community College.

You also have a collaboration with Cornell University? 

There's a new NSF-funded center called PARADIM, Platform for Accelerated Realization, Analysis and Discovery of Interface Materials. It’s a nanotech research center supported by NSF (the National Science Foundation). When Cornell proposed it, they asked me to write a support letter, saying if the center were funded I would be using it. I wrote the letter. The proposal was funded in 2016. I’m allowed pretty much unlimited use of microscopy instruments. When you are measuring in billionths, you need a transmission electron microscope, TEM, which I use at Cornell. 

What other activities do you participate in on campus?

I’m involved in SCAC, the Scholarly and Creative Activities Committee. I work with the student SCAC grants, especially Challenge Grant proposals that are submitted. I work with the Assessment Advisory Committee, where we look at the courses that are taught throughout the campus. Are they achieving the goal, the learning objectives detailed in the syllabi? I work with CTAB, Campus Technology Advisory Board, on use of technology on campus. In 2016, I gave a presentation in the Science Today lecture to a broad audience about my research.

What do you like to do off-campus, in your down time?

That would bring me to my days in Bangladesh. When I was there, I went to a military high school for kids who show promise. They have specialized schools, and the schedules are similar to what you would have at West Point or places like that. You have to wake up at 5 in the morning. So what I do for my recreation is I get up very early in the morning and I run. I don’t like the treadmill, even when it’s 10 below outside. I still put on runner’s clothes and I go outside and I run. When you run in the cold, you only feel cold for five, 10 minutes. After that, you feel good. The air is clear, cold and nice.

Do you make visits to Bangladesh?

It’s been a while. My parents passed away, but my younger sister and brother, plus my mother-in-law, are in Bangladesh. We go back for a short time every two or three years.

What can you tell us about your family?

My wife and I have three children -- 6, 10 and 16 -- so I’m busy! My oldest daughter is an 11th-grader. She’s about to apply to colleges, so SAT, ACT and all that -- I’m very busy at home. She likes swimming, running, and she wants to be a doctor. She takes an anatomy course, and she’s going to places where they are showing dissection and operations and transplants, so she’s getting interested in that. My middle one is a fourth-grader -- he likes basketball. He ended up with something called the Hustle Award at the end of the session. Our younger daughter is a second-grader. She knows everybody! She’s a very friendly person.