A desire to blend research and public service drew materials scientist Michael Fasolka to the NIST National Research Council (NRC) Postdoctoral Research Associateships Program. Seventeen years later, Fasolka is the deputy director of NIST’s Material Measurement Laboratory, one of five NIST laboratories.
“I got interested in the NIST NRC program, and this is corny, but I wanted to serve my country and knew that when I looked at my career path out of graduate school, an academic career was not going to satisfy the need for service that I felt,” Fasolka explains.
In the last year of his doctoral program in materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fasolka’s advisor suggested he consider a career in the national laboratory system.
Not long after, Fasolka began talking with Lori Goldner at NIST about a new type of microscopy she was developing that might help him in his polymer research. Goldner encouraged Fasolka to apply to the NIST NRC program.
His proposal accepted, Fasolka arrived at NIST in 2000 to work with Goldner in a physics group that was developing a unique scanning microscope.
Fasolka recalls two things from his time as a NIST NRC postdoc. One was seeing a group of junior staff managing their own projects. “Watching them work gave me the confidence that I could successfully move to their level,” he explains.
Fasolka realized that even though he was in an instrument development group, “that was not my forte.” The group was actually more interested in his research into polymers, which are long chains of repeating molecular structures used in a myriad of commercial applications including health care, plastics, electronics and coatings.
He worked with thin, self-assembling polymers that create nanoscale patterns that can serve as templates for tiny devices. The nanoscale patterns were perfect for testing his colleagues’ new instrument—the first light-microscope of its type to detect nanoscale features in these systems.
Fasolka recalls two things from his time as a NIST NRC postdoc. One was seeing a group of junior staff managing their own projects. “Watching them work gave me the confidence that I could successfully move to their level,” he explains. Also, the breadth of work performed at NIST impressed him. On the same floor where he worked, a team was testing reflective paint to improve road safety. “I liked that diversity,” he says.
At the end of his postdoc, Fasolka joined the NIST Polymers Division. Within two years, he was leading a group to accelerate the pace of polymer research. He later directed a consortium based on that research, called the NIST Combinatorial Methods Center.
“What interested me in the NIST Combinatorial Methods Center was the close interaction with industry, and that we were helping industry acquire techniques that would give them a competitive edge and thus help our economy,” he recalls.
Soon Fasolka moved up to the position of scientific advisor, a management position that allowed him to play a role in assessing existing research programs and scanning the field to find new opportunities to advance material measurement. In 2012, he was promoted to deputy lab director.
“I like the position,” he says, adding that “it is close enough to the science that I think about science every day, but I feel like I am contributing in a bigger manner.”
Fasolka has personally advised two NIST NRC postdocs, but worked with many others when he led the combinatorial research program.
The postdoc program “is our primary recruiting tool for good scientists and we put a lot of energy into making sure there are great opportunities for people,” he explains. He adds that NIST NRC postdocs can take their careers in different directions—some move on to industry, academia and other government labs. Many stay at NIST.
The NIST NRC postdoctoral program “started my career,” Fasolka says, adding that, “it introduced me to the place I wanted to work and spend my entire career.”
– written by Evelyn Brown